Kate Horsley’s The Changeling of Finnistuath throws a harsh light on the quotidian of a dark time in Ireland, that period of western European history with scant records to document its cataclysmic changes. The changeling of the title is a girl-baby passed off as a boy to fool a half-wit goatherd father who has threatened to kill any more female infants in his half-starved household.
The baby is named Gregory for her father as his “first-born son” and nicknamed Grey. She is carefully minded by her mother and the close-lipped village midwife who keeps the secrets of the whole populace. Grey grows up wanting to be a warrior and learning the arts of a son, not a daughter. She thinks she is deformed and cooperates with hiding her true gender from her peers and the adults.
The small Irish village, really a scattering of peasant dwellings around a noble’s manor house, is a backward place of illiterate households, inchoate longings, garbled religion and pagan superstition. A traveling tinker brings trinkets to trade and sell and news of the outside world. A bailiff keeps careful records of the impossible debts people owe that keep them enslaved. The arrogant noble family rides roughshod over the countryside. Grey is eventually traded to the local priest in repayment of the debt for baptizing him/her.
The priest, who claims bits of cow bone he collects are holy relics, begins the practice of offering Grey as a sexual object to elicit favors from high places. She is veiled and set naked for the noble’s sensitive son to encounter by a sacred spring for the priest’s benefit. She is traded to a botanist-monk from a nearby monastery, again for advantage to the priest. The monk deploys her in the monastery for the same purpose, only now she is passed off as a deaf-mute, blindfolded so she cannot see the monks who make use of her. Grey begins to respond to one anonymous monk whose emotional needs affect her as much as his sexual fumblings.
Plague hits Ireland and England hard and decimates the monastery population. The religious community has already been fatally weakened by a visit from a brutal papal emissary who threatens to close it down. Worse, the abbot is missing a Church treasure entrusted to him by the Avignon pope, a jeweled box stolen by the tinker, containing a handwritten account that could irreparably damage papal claims about the divinity of Jesus. As the abbot’s congregation lies feverish and festering with fatal sores, Grey discovers that her sympathetic lover has been the abbot himself and the power in their relationship shifts.
Pregnancy, plague, motherhood, travel, abandonment, sanctuary, searing loss and disillusion twist Grey’s tale this way and that. Her years as a mis-gendered child have both strengthened her and fatally severed her sense of self. Her child is the first anchor to an identity that allows her some peace.
But life was brutish, nasty and short in that dark age and no one escapes unscathed. The tinker reenters Grey’s life as does the noble’s son—both have a profound effect on her. She endures loss, dislocation, betrayal and confusion and finds solace and security that are tragically short-lived.
The Changeling of Finnistuath is a densely woven tapestry of history and human emotion. The account is disturbing for the inhumanity evidenced by the wealthy and powerful members of its cast and the intolerance of a nascent Catholic Church amassing power and riches as it crafts a religion to serve its worldly ends. Resourceful and resilient peasants adapt, thrive, fall from grace, survive and adapt again. Horsley’s writing is evocative and beautiful and her characters capture the human spirit in all its many guises. Even as it delivers a revelatory history lesson, Grey’s story and the events of her time, make you think about the legacy of that age in our own.
The Changeling of Finnistuath: A Novel Kate Horsley Shambala 2003