Author: Melanie Golding
Publisher: HarperCollins, supernatural
I have a feeling that your response to Little Darlings is going to be largely determined by your response to the folklore on which Melanie Golding’s debut novel turns.
Stories of changeling children run deep in European literature, as do tales of fairies and elves waiting to steal unwatched babies. There are people who believed (and still believe) these stories to be literally true; others think such tales are metaphorical attempts to explain rare kinds of mental illness such as puerperal (or postpartum) psychosis. But whichever school you are in, Little Darlings is not going to work as well for you if you are deeply dismissive of the whole phenomenon.
When the book opens, Lauren Tranter is in the delivery room, an epidural having removed her extreme pain prior to a “forceps extraction procedure that could still go wrong”. The first of her twins is stuck in the birth canal.
Some hours later, sore and weakened, Lauren experiences first a disturbing dream and then, on the following night, an encounter that will haunt her. In an adjacent cubicle she hears a woman singing. When Lauren investigates, she finds an older woman in rags, smelling of rotting vegetation, with twins in a basket at her feet.
“Let’s deal,” hissed the horrible woman, bringing her face up close to Lauren.
“What’s fair after all? We had everything taken, you had everything given. Let’s change one for another.”
“Give me one of yours. I’ll take care of it. You have one of mine. Treat it like your own. One of mine at least would get a life for itself, a taste of something easy. What’s fair?”
Unsurprisingly, Lauren declines and locks herself in the hospital bathroom to call the police. But the encounter sets off a chain of events which leads Lauren to believe that the woman is out to steal her children and substitute them with her own. The classic changeling story.
When some weeks later the twins do go missing, the case is taken up by Detective Sergeant Joanna Harper who goes rogue on her superiors, having suspected from Lauren’s first desperate call that there may be more to her claims than have been officially recognised.
“The babies muddied the waters…. She couldn’t tell if she felt so strongly about this case because a criminal needed to be apprehended, or because there were babies in potential danger.”
What follows is a mixture of police procedural, folklore, local legend and horror story. Underpinning it is the constant question for us as readers of Lauren’s credibility. Is she sane? Deluded? Mentally ill? How reliable a witness is she? And what role, if any, does her husband, Patrick, play in all this?
If there is one category of reader that Little Darlings may not be suitable for it is expectant mothers and mothers of new born children. Golding writes disturbingly vividly both about the birth experience itself (based on her own two “traumatic births”) and the chaotic aftermath of trying to function normally in a world turned upside down by the seemingly endless demands, in Lauren’s case, of twins.
I don’t think I have ever read better imagined and written post childbirth scenes than the ones in which she sits stranded in her bedroom unable to move, frozen with the fear that someone wants to steal her babies. Fortunately, I kept telling myself, it is not usually like that, as Lauren’s visiting friends remind us.
Golding writes extremely competently and Little Darlings is a compulsive read, especially as it moves towards its climax. But I cannot help feeling – and I cringe somewhat as I write this – that it is more of a woman’s book. Despite having attended the birth of my own three children I know that my experience was in some sense peripheral to the suffering and pain that was being played out before my eyes.
And also, I suspect, few men fully grasp the fierce and obsessive intensity that hallmarks a mother’s feelings for her newborn and which is so much an integral part of Lauren’s psychology. All of which is to say nothing other than that the experiences of the onlooker and the participant are bound to differ.
Be that as it may, Little Darlings is destined to be a big success – with a film already, as I understand, in the making. In the right hands, it will be a disturbing viewing experience.
I am not a big fan of any ratings system (because it implicitly compares the incomparable) and my 7/10 for Little Darlings is partly rooted in my lack of sympathy with the changeling story which, frankly, I found more than a little unlikely in places. My wife would have scored it higher. She may well be right.