Crooked Lane Books
April 30, 2019
Having given birth to a pair of twins, Lauren Tranter is filled with the mixture of delight and anxiety that is to be expected from a new mother. But then, something strange happens in the maternity ward. Lauren becomes convinced that there is a woman in the next cubicle with two babies of her own. The staff denies this — but when Lauren is left alone, she hears the woman singing an eerie lullaby, her two babies cooing along:
She took a penknife long and sharp aye-o
She took a penknife long and sharp,
And pierced the two pretty babes to the heart
Lay me down me dilly dilly downwards
Down by the greenwood side-O
Lauren peers behind the cubicle curtain and sees the woman – clad in ragged clothes, her skin caked in grime. Staring back with eyes that seem older than the rest of her face, the woman grabs Lauren by the wrist and makes a perverse offer: she will hand over one of her babies, in return for one of Lauren’s own twins. “One of mine would get a life for himself, a taste of something easy. What’s fair?” Lauren struggles loose and flees with her children, while the strange woman replaces her offer with a threat: if she is not given one of Lauren’s babies, she will take both of them.
When Lauren returns, the stranger is nowhere to be seen. Nobody else claims to have seen her, and there is no CCTV footage to back up Lauren’s claim. Jo Harper, a police officer, turns up in response to Lauren’s report of attempted child abduction — but she is left with no solid evidence to go on. Did Lauren imagine the entire ordeal?
But as the story progresses, it appears that the strange woman may well have followed through on her threat. Lauren takes her babies Riley and Morgan to a park; she falls asleep, and wakes up to find them missing. The police manage to find the babies, and her husband Patrick is satisfied that the children are safe and sound — but Lauren is convinced that something has happened to them:
For the first time, she questioned if she’d know which one was which without the green and yellow colour coding that was only for Patrick’s sake anyway. Had they been changed around, dressed in each other’s colours? Both had the same blue-grey eyes they’d had before they were taken. But Morgan didn’t look like Morgan, not exactly. Riley didn’t either, something about the way his lip curled.
And then she knew, with a terrible certainty. It wasn’t Morgan and Riley, not anymore. Something else was looking at her, out of the eyes of her babies. That creepy, evil woman – she’d done it, somehow, exactly as she’d threatened she would.
Little Darlings is a story based on the widespread folkloric concept that fairies sometimes steal away human babies and replace them with changelings. A number of chapters open with quotations from the likes of W. B. Yeats, the Brothers Grimm and James Russell Lowell on the changeling theme, and a book on the topic turns up as a plot element, having been sent to the pregnant Lauren by an unknown person.
Author Melanie Golding transplants this age-old superstition to the urban setting of contemporary Sheffield. She constructs a solid, believable set of characters: anxious mother Lauren and police officer Harper are joined by Lauren’s aloof husband Patrick, Harper’s stern superior Thrupp, journalist Amy Larsen — who happens to be the subject of Harper’s romantic desires — and eco-anarchist Gideon Joe. The possible existence of fairy mischief sits side by side with more grounded matters such as Harper’s rocky family history: pregnant at thirteen, she gave birth to a daughter, Ruby, who was raised by her parents as a younger sister, giving her an unusual insight into Lauren’s own trauma as a new mother.
Lauren’s conviction that her babies have been replaced by fairy-children drives her to violence and leads to her being detained under the Mental Health Act. But she has a guardian angel (or fairy godmother?) in the form of Harper, who is intrigued by the case from its beginning. Noticing a digital anomaly on the maternity ward’s CCTV footage, Harper decides to investigate further — even if this involves forging a signature from her superior to obtain funding. Harper’s mission also puts her into conflict with Lauren’s husband, but she remains determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Whether the children have truly been replaced by changelings or whether this is merely a delusion of Lauren’s is uncertain for most of the story. Little Darlings is able to sustain this ambiguity by tapping into the fears and anxieties — some rational, others irrational — that naturally come with having children. From early, on the novel places the reader inside Lauren’s head, allowing them to share her every concern: a quiet moment from the babies leaves her worried that they have stopped breathing; a bout of crying reminds her of the potential damage to mental development if she does not tend to the children quickly enough. Through describing these fears, the narrative manages to include a spectrum of potential futures for the children, all disastrous — and as Lauren’s imagination mingles with the reality around her, the idea that her babies have been replaced with fairy offspring becomes strangely credible.
As well as the literal concept of the fairy child, the novel explores more figurative forms of the changeling theme. Lauren begins to feel that her husband – who, it turns out, has some quite significant secrets – is not the same man she had married:
Look at someone every day for long enough and you stop seeing what everyone else sees. You start to see what no one else sees, what is kept hidden from most people. And she’d caught a flash of emptiness behind those lapis-blue eyes. A chasm. A vacuum. She wasn’t ready to see that.
Indeed, even at the start of the novel, Lauren’s postpartum depression has left her feeling like something of a changeling herself:
She’d been deconstructed by nature and then by man, then nature again, and finally by man – the two forces tossing her hand over hand, back and forth like volleyball. Where was Lauren in this maelstrom of awfulness? Where was the person she had previously thought herself to be?
All of these themes are carried along by the tightly-wound clockwork of the narrative. Little Darlings is a well-constructed psychological thriller, one where each new development brings further intrigue. At one point it appears that the authorities have found the mysterious woman from Lauren’s ward, and provided an explanation for her strange behaviour; it then turns out that they have found the wrong person — but the discovery of this other woman leads to revelations about Patrick’s personal history, adding a new set of cogs to the narrative mechanics.
With Little Darlings, Melanie Golding has delved into the anxieties and depression that come with childbirth, and used the rich language of folklore as a means of articulating these emotions. The surrounding story — a mixture of family saga, police procedural and supernatural horror — is fast-paced and gripping, but it is the raw emotions and the frisson of the weird that will remain with the reader.