Do I always say 'you must read this book'? If so I'm sorry but I really mean it this time, especially if you were a Coronation year baby like me, or a child of that era and I'm sorry too because I keep reading books that leave me choked at the moment, and this one is likely to have that effect on you as well.
But it's all right, we're in good company because The Changeling by Robin Jenkins and published by Canongate leaves Andrew Marr in a worse state in his afterword,
'this book makes me cry, and unsettles me badly...it has settled itself somewhere inside my mind, and stayed'
Now it's settled and stayed in my mind too and, like so much else that I've read recently, I think it will be there for ever. When I eventually lose the marbles, and can only sift out the odd thing here and there, I'm certain I'll still be muttering and sobbing over The Changeling and getting it all mixed up with Child 44 and that short story by Carys Davies, The Gingerbread Boy about the child abduction.
If like me you you're a sassenach who has never heard of Robin Jenkins (1912 - 2005) then hie thee oot there and discover because I can't recommend him highly enough. Hailed by many as Scotland's greatest fiction writer, and though I couldn't possibly comment on that, The Changeling is in a league of its own and more than evidences the accolade.
Any children of the 1950's will relate fiercely and often very uncomfortably with this book because social class distinction was prominent, judgemental and very evident in my childhood. Not in my home, and not that I really understood so while I was out there with my gang roller skating around in a smocked frock with a bow at the back, but out there in the world at large, and casting my mind back little incidents fly in that are suddenly most unwelcome.
The ostracised smelly child at school and the awful rhymes that were sung, the "backward" child who spent half his life standing in the corner for being naughty, by today's standards on reflection a good deal of it was grim and this book will bring it all back to you. In amongst the welter of fashionable nostalgia publishing it is easy to forget that things have also changed for the better, this book sharpens the gaze very effectively.
Published in 1958, The Changeling recounts the story of the nice aspiringly middle-class Forbes family living in Glasgow. Father Charlie is a school teacher, overweight, not a post-war hero for his son to idolise, low self-worth but a seemingly kind and honest heart and with a burning desire to ameliorate the social injustice that he spots in one of his pupils, Tom Curdie.
'That boy lives under an Everest, a whole Himalayan range, of handicaps, disadvantages and penalties. Yet he has never revealed...one whimper of complaint, one yelp for revenge.'
Bright and intelligent but from the lawless jungle that is the Donaldson Estate, Glasgow's worst in this fictional account, Tom is an enigmatic child and one entirely misunderstood by most of the adults around him. (though interestingly not in the very final analysis, by his apparently useless drink-sodden mother.)
Charlie decides that it would be an act of charitable benevolance to take Tom along on the family's annual holiday because in Charlie's eyes he clearly needed temporary respite from the Donaldson Estate,
'Newly born babies in their prams, if washed looked pathetically alien there; but in a short time, in two years or less, they had begun to acquire the characteristics which would enable them to survive amidst the dirt and the savagery...slumdom was hideous; but then the people who lived there were slum-dwellers.'
and the Forbes family had this to offer,
'Towellan was not just a place where a holiday was spent, it was where the Forbes family renewed itself, where their love for one another, their faith, trust and hope were strengthened.'
Surely what more could Tom want or need?
Charlie's suggestion does not go down well with Family Forbes, the wife and two children are less than enamoured and there is much questioning of his seemingly altruistic motives by Charlie's colleagues. Amidst fears of lice, nits and general osmosis of low moral standards by association, when Charlie's wealthy and highly judgemental mother-in-law also pitches up for the holiday you can but sense there will be turmoil.
No more of the plot because though it is perfect, it is the limb-by-limb dissection without anaesthetic of this family that makes for spectacular reading. This is the archetypal 1950's family, trying to make good, rebuilding lives in the aftermath of a war that has shifted the goalposts. People jockeying for position, a new page turned for yet another re-writing of social history.
Ideologies are methodically and ruthlessly torn apart and exposed for what they are as the glaze of this perfect family gradually crackles and splinters beneath the pressure of a stranger in their midst.Tom is quiet and has little to say but Robin Jenkins doesn't need to give him a loud voice because as a reader you supply it, every single word and emotion necessary on his behalf. Motives and misunderstandings are excruciatingly exposed along with shallow prejudices and assumptions all leading to a seismic shift in the thinking all round and all bestowed with a slow steady and magical hand by Robin Jenkins. He really has achieved something quite miraculous and intensely readable with his cast of fully formed characters, I wonder if this has ever made it into TV drama territory? If not it's sitting waiting to be done.
Meanwhile if you do decide to read it please feel free to join Andrew Marr and me snivelling over here in the corner and could you please bring along some clean hankies ?