So back in Feb, my friend Kate
challenged dared suggested that we re-read The Changeover, by Margaret Mahy. I agreed readily enough, not having read it for a number of years – and then discovered that I didn’t actually own a copy any more, how is that even possible?? Kate went all silent-running on me for a while, but she has now posted some of her own thoughts, so I will finally do the same… spoiler: the Suck Fairy did not visit!
Of the things I remembered, they were there and they were still good. I’m not afraid to admit that I adored the romance between Sorry and Laura as a kid; I was scared that this would turn out to be a stalker-y, Edward Cullen kind of romance, because after all Sorry is older and there is that one breaking-into-the-bedroom scene. But it’s not (to my mind) like that at all: for one thing, Laura is very well aware of exactly what is going on – she’s been sharing Looks with him for a year – and she knows full well that she has some sort of power over him, probably more than him over her. Plus, Sorry (and Mahy) make it very clear that Sorry must be invited in – that classic supernatural charm – and Laura is always very aware of what she’s doing. That bedroom scene? He may have broken in but he’s doing it to warn Laura not to be pushed into anything by his grandmother; plus, he leaves her with a delightful image from her past to fall asleep to. That’s pretty cute… and he’s a bit scared of her, too.
Carmody was as disgusting as I remembered, and the descriptions of Jacko’s health deteriorating as heart-wrenching. Interestingly I think I felt even more uncomfortable with Laura’s brush with evil, as she figures out what to do with him at the end, than I ever did as a teen. The use of a self-inking stamp is still one of the creepiest methods of all time for (literally) making your mark on someone.
Wonderfully, there were aspects to the novel that I appreciated more as a thirty-something than I did as a teen. I didn’t come from (as we said in the 80s) a “broken home,” so Laura’s agonies and resentment and confusion over how to feel about her dad – who left for a younger woman – and the new man in her mum’s life didn’t mean much to me then. Now, though, I see just how honestly Mahy is writing; Laura’s attitudes are written sympathetically, but we also get an insight into her mother’s feelings about it being difficult but not disastrous. Plus, and most brilliantly, her dad’s new wife is lovely, in a real-world not saccharine way. This honesty is delightful. And so is the way the family is written – it’s on the optimistic side, but still Kate isn’t always the most attentive mother, and Laura is not the perfect daughter, but they have real love for each other that does push through the difficulties.
I also appreciated the setting more on this re-read. Mahy is suggesting that magic can happen in the real world, and what’s more in the suburbs of New Zealand. And, better yet, in a somewhat downtrodden area; while the Carlisle witches may live in a massive old house with massive old trees, Laura herself lives in a completely ordinary, verging on genteel poor, street. The changeover itself utilises very old magical tropes of forests and lakes, but the magic itself that Laura works happens in the cold light of day near bricks and new developments.
Speaking of the Carlisle witches, the one aspect I’m not entirely sure about is the way Sorry’s abuse at the hands of his foster father is dealt with. I can appreciate the honesty here in how Sorry talks about it, and in having it present at all in a teen novel – but simply disappearing isn’t going to be an option for other abuse victims. So I can’t tell whether having someone like Sorry experience it and live through it is something that will give hope and courage, or whether the magical escape is a cop-out that would just depress.
Finally, I also really, really liked the ending. Laura is still only 14 so it made me deliriously happy to see her future not completely sewn up; while I hope she and Sorry do end up together – and I know people who are together in their 30s after meeting at that age – Sorry and Laura are both realistic that any talk of that sort will have to wait for a few years yet.