I was 12 and a bookish girl who was curiously prone to catching fevers, colds, and coughs. I spent days reading in bed or curled up in the big cream chair at the far end of the living room. My dog would snore at my feet as I got lost in yet another book. I came across one of Margaret Mahy's books during one of these spells - The Tricksters. I think it was one of the very first supernatural YA books I ever came across. I lived in Nowheresville, Denmark and I had almost run out of books to read from the local library. Margaret Mahy - I kept that name in my head.
Then my local library bought Margaret Mahy's The Changeover. My life would never be the same - it was one of those books that changed you. At the very least it changed me.
The synopsis sounds fairly mundane: a teenage girl discovers her young brother is possessed by a demon and she enlists the local school prefect to help her battle the demon. Okay, the synopsis sounds pretty terrible - but the book was terrific. It was well-written (and later I'd discover the literary allusions one by one) and the real dangers lurked in every-day life beyond the surface drama of soul-stealing demons and witchcraft.
What changed me? I think I caught a glimpse of myself in the book.
I have never been good at identifying with characters in books and much of my reading pleasure derives from well-turned prose, intelligent plots and clever structures - but I think my 12-year-old self saw something of herself in Laura Chant, Mahy's teenage protagonist. Laura Chant was realistically drawn: a strong and independent girl but with a complex family life which renders her more than a bit vulnerable. Mahy also captures Laura on the cusp of becoming something more than just a daughter, a sister, and a girl. There is a strong streak of yearning throughout "The Changeover" - characters yearn to make sense of the world and move beyond petty squabbling in the school ground and the tiny shopping centre. "There is a world out there," the book whispered, "and it is yours to explore!"
I read and re-read "The Changeover" getting it out of my local library again and again. I bought the novel in English when I first set foot in Foyles some six years later. It was one of the first books I ever read in English, let alone owned. I still re-read my copy every couple of years or so. Time has not lessened my love.
And Margaret Mahy was instrumental in kick-starting my love for New Zealand. I was 24 when I travelled through New Zealand for a month and I hung out the bus window desperate to get a photo of the sign saying "Welcome to Paraparaumu" - a town mentioned in "The Changeover" as a mundane place. The mundane place seemed magical to me. I still have that photo too.
Rest in Peace, Margaret Mahy. And thank you for making a lonely teenage girl much less lonely and far bolder.
"I like to swim in deep water. I like to be where I can't feel the bottom and I have always liked that from the time I was very small, but there is always the fear of the shark sneaking up from the darkness below, and grabbing your foot. After you've been frightened of the shark for a while, you begin to tell stories about it, to take it over ... and in odd moments of life, when you have a little go at being the shark yourself, you recognise an old truth in what you are doing."