The Changeling by Robin Jenkins
28 November, 2014
Never to whine; to accept what came; to wait for better; to take what you could; to let no one, not even yourself, know how near to giving in you were: these were his principles by which he lived…
Robin Jenkins’ novel, The Changeling, about a poor young boy from a Glasgow slum who is whisked away on a family holiday by his well-meaning but ultimately naïve teacher, is a startling account of the fallible and arrogant nature of altruism and superiority gone wrong.
Jenkins uses the character of Charlie Forbes and his do-gooding cloaked in good intentions and shortsightedness to show in sharp relief the desperate nature of a child born into poverty who possesses an uncanny intellect, survival skills and self-assuredness who comes to realise that there is no escape from his situation.
Donaldson’s Court, a slum in 50s Glasgow, is a wretched place reminiscent of Dickens’ Victorian London at its worst. Forbes’ well meaning belief born out of pity that two weeks on holiday with his family will bring some relief to Tom Curdie’s miserable existence is naïve at best and cruel at worst and so arrogant and misplace that he doesn’t realise this may have an adverse affect on his pupil, giving him false hope for a brighter future, something Tom realises early on and tries so hard to prevent. And yet, he is a child of twelve, starved of kindness, affection and stability, that a week away with a normal family irrevocably changes him and plunges him into further despair. And little does Forbes or the other adults realise this; so wrapped up in their petty drama of being fair and moral and trying to keep their indignation at bay that they are prepared to strike immediately if Tom goes out of line.
Everywhere in Towellan, in the garden among the rose-bushes, in the hut at night listening to the owl, on the lawn putting, even in the ruined castle with the sick rabbit, he was becoming convinced that this was the way of life he had always known and always would know; that at the end of the holiday he would return with the rest of the family, and would for the rest of his life be involved in their affairs as he was now; and that he would always have a bed to himself with clean sheet, and plenty of good food served on a table with a white cloth.
It is only Gillian, Forbes’ daughter who sees Tom for who he really is. At first suspicious of Tom’s motives in inveigling into her family, she is determined to expose him for the thief she knows him to be. And yet there is something about Tom which calls to her and she soon becomes the only one to see the tragic unfurling of Tom’s tightly held grasp on his emotions, something he has always hidden from everyone.
‘Did you,’ she asked, ‘did you steal those things in Woolworth’s because – because you didn’t want- to get – too fond of us?’
Expressed like that, almost angrily as if she was again accusing him, it was very far from saying what was in her heart to say. She felt not only pity and love for him in his terrible predicament, but also complicity with him. There was no way of explaining that.
Nevertheless he seemed to understand, and smiled with a gratitude she could not bear.
Jenkins’ storytelling is sparse, he draws the well-argued and dramatic emotions of the Forbes family with flair in sharp contrast to the controlled, spartan stance of Tom’s character. Forbes is poorly trained to deal with the invisible complex emotions swirling within his pupil and ultimately fails as a mentor and person. What starts as a silly, thoughtless whim quickly escalates into tragic proportions.
The Changeling is a tragic tale devoid of sentimentality. A beautifully drawn portrait of quiet suffering. Tom’s streetwise knowledge cannot help him against such mishandled naïveté. Inevitable yet heartbreaking.
I’m so glad Kim chose this for our book group otherwise I would never had heard of Robin Jenkins. There are layers to this novel which would benefit from many re-readings and I hope to do just that. A thoughtful and melancholic study of human fallibility and short-sightedness encapsulated by a fellow teacher’s description of Forbes:
The difference between you and me, Charlie, is this: if I passed a blind beggar with a tinny I’d drop in a couple of coppers and pass on, without giving him another thought but you’d be so damned indignant at such public misery and so busy blaming everybody else for it that you’d pass by without putting anything in at all.