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Family Portrait

The Changeover

By Margaret Mahy 

14 May, 2019

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Margaret Mahy’s 1984 The Changeover is a standalone YA fantasy novel. 

Schoolgirl Laura Chant lives with her divorced mother Kate and her younger brother Jacko. One morning she wakes with a premonition that life in the quiet Christchurch suburb of Gardendale is about to change for the worse. She knows from past experience that her premonitions are trustworthy. However, there seems to be nothing she can do to prevent whatever fate is looming. She must carry on as normal and hope for the best. 

She does not get the best. 

While walking with her young brother Jacko, Laura is approached by local shopkeeper Charmody Braque. Braque frightens her: he smells like rotting time and he is smarmy and obsequious. Laura cuts the conversation with Braque as short as she can. Not short enough. 

Soon after the encounter, Jacko falls ill. His condition worsens and he is sent to hospital. The best efforts of mundane doctors fail because they are unable to determine what is wrong with the little boy. It seems certain he will die. 

Laura reasons that if the disease is supernatural, there might be a supernatural cure. Thanks to her untutored magical gift, she knows Sorensen Sorry” Carlisle to be a witch. This seems absurd on the face of it. He’s a boy. Seemingly a normal schoolboy. Of course, had he been a girl, this would be more likely. The Carlisle women have an uncanny reputation. But Laura trusts her intuition … and she’s right to do so. 

She approaches Sorry. He hasn’t been a chum, but he’s willing to help. And he is a witch, like his mother and grandmother. Which is another story. 

His mother had wanted a girl. On being delivered of a boy, she gave him up for adoption. This worked out very badly all round. His adoptive family fell into disarray and Sorry was abused. He ends up on his mother’s doorstep, damaged. He has both magical powers and psychological issues. It turns out that he has become obsessed with Laura, whom he knew for someone with witch potential. He wants her and he’s afraid of her. He is alternately grabby and gruff. 

Even though he squabbles with Laura, Sorry does what he can to help. At first, all he can do is tell Laura that Braque is draining Jacko’s life force. He thinks that there might be a way to break the link between Braque and Jacko, but he cannot undo the spell himself. 

Laura might be able to undo the spell now, but her odds of success would be much greater if she were a witch like Sorry. Sorry, his mother, and his grandmother can together set Laura on the path to embrace her power. But if Laura tries the path and fails, she will die. There will be nobody to save Jacko. 


One cannot help but wonder if Sorry’s social deficits have been exacerbated by his mother’s habit of talking about him: 

We struggled to save him,’ Winter continued, oh, not his life – he was in no danger of dying – but,’ – she looked at Miryam doubtfully – his humanity, I suppose. We realized the danger we were in. You see, Laura – you can probably imagine – a witch without humanity is a black witch nine times out of ten. We took him to doctors, we patched him together. He imitates normal life very well now, when he has to, but no wonder he talked about your little brother as if he were a broken car. Sorensen is very much a broken-down car himself, and none of us can tell how badly broken. He doesn’t appear to feel very deeply, though he can seem quite clever.’

It turns out that Sorry is capable of more personal growth than his mother can imagine. As she is the person whose idea of a good solution to the problem of a boy-child rather than a proper girl was to pay someone (an abusive someone in the end) to raise Sorry, perhaps her judgment is a wee bit faulty. 

Mahy doesn’t settle for presenting Laura with a single challenge (whether or not to risk her own death in a bid to gain the capacity to save Jacko). Laura’s mother Kate is finding new love with Canadian librarian Chris, a development that distresses Laura. As do her feelings re her divorced father and his new family. As does her conflicted attraction to Sorry. Jacko’s illness exacerbates all this family drama. 

This novel is a coming-of-age story that is both magical (becoming a witch) and mundane (coping with family issues). The dual focus gives this story more depth and reality. 

Mahy is a prolific author who is well-known in her native New Zealand. She is less known in other climes; this well-written, absorbing book was new to me. I am looking forward to reading other Mahy novels. 

The Changeover is available here (Amazon), here (Amazon.ca) and here (Chapters-Indigo).