‘They stole you from me. They took you away for seven years. Your entire lifetime…Make no mistake, my darling. I am coming for you. I will take you back.’
The Stolen Child is about a couple, Zoe and Ollie, who long for children and when they’re unable to have their own, they adopt a little girl, Evie, from birth. But when she turns seven, Evie receives a card from her real father, telling her that she was stolen from him. Like most thrillers, the idea began as a one-liner…but when I started to flesh out the story, I realised that I had another, darker influence…
My mother and step-father are Irish and I grew up in Ireland before coming to live next to Ilkley moor, where The Stolen Child is set. So my Irish background, and then moving to West Yorkshire when I was eight, played a huge role in shaping the kind of story I’ve told, as well as where it takes place.
Many Irish myths and folktales revolve around the little people, or faeries: one of the frequent themes of these tales is of a child who is spirited away by the faeries to the underworld, and then either returned years later when everyone they know is dead, or replaced with a changeling. When we were children, we used to chant a poem about faeries by Donegal poet, William Allingham. It seems to start off light-heartedly – Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen – but grows ever more sinister:
They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
I’m sure Allingham influenced WB Yeats who, at the age of 21, wrote The Stolen Child, also about a child being taken away by the little people, and which gave me the idea for the title of my novel.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.
Of course, there are no faeries in my story: it’s set in modern-day suburbia, and any nastiness is purely the result of our all too human desires. But there’s a dark thread that runs through The Stolen Child borrowed from those ancient stories. Evie, gorgeous and innocent though she is, may be damaged. Her biological mother was a drug addict. When Zoe first sees Evie as a baby, she finds it hard to love her:
‘Something is not quite right. I struggle to inhale. Something is wrong. Seriously wrong…She doesn’t look like our child. She doesn’t look like a baby at all. Not a human one.’
And later Zoe worries about Evie’s ‘quirkiness’, as if her daughter, a dark child in a blonde family, is a changeling. And then, there is the setting – Ilkley moor – where the heather is interspersed with rowan trees, which in Ireland, belong to the little people. You must never fall asleep beneath one of them… There’s something too about the age seven: it’s a time when there’s a big shift in brain development and children start having a conscience and becoming more emotionally and cognitively aware. Evie, as she turns seven, starts to realise what it means to be adopted, to be the outsider within a family. The faeries only release little Bridget after seven years…and seven is the number of years you’d serve in prison if your crime was extremely serious, but not quite as bad as murder…
In Yeats’ poem, the child initially wants to go with the faeries because they promise to give him stolen cherries and take him somewhere beautiful, away from the woes of the world. But when he agrees, they reveal the true nature of what they’re doing and what the child will lose. And Evie, like many adopted children, is, at first, intrigued and beguiled by the idea of her real father coming to take her away.
‘Evie is our beautiful, dark-haired, green-eyed child,’ I say. I can hear the tremor in my voice. ‘Like many seven-year-old girls, she’s obsessed with princesses. We think she looks more like a fairy… Please find her. Please bring her back to us. We miss her beyond measure. She is the love of our life.’
But to find out who has really taken Evie Morley, you may just need to read the whole story…!