ChangelingsBy TOM MARSHALL (McClelland & Stewart Inc.; 1991)

The Author’s Note preceding this novel says it all: “This story may seem implausible from beginning to end.”

Implausible? Let’s see. Set in early 1960s Canada, CHANGELINGS is about a twin brother and sister who were sexually abused as children and as a result have developed multiple personalities. The brother, Laird, grows up to become a suburbanite, at least until one of his personalities, an aggressive misogynist named Al, gets him tossed in jail on rape charges. There he meets Herb, a prison psychiatrist who’s astounded upon discovering six or so other selves inhabiting the timid Laird.

Laird’s twin Eleanor has channeled her own multiple personalities into a successful career as a medium. Her clients include the Prime Minister of Canada(!) and a troubled woman named Alice, who believes Eleanor is in contact with her deceased ex…and who just happens to be married to her brother’s shrink.

If you have trouble swallowing such a wild coincidence you’ll likely have a hell of a time getting through this book. Other outlandish developments include one of Laird’s personalities falling in love with his own sister–or at least one of her personalities. Another of Laird’s selves knows and recognizes his sis, and is scheming to do away with her. As for the increasingly flummoxed Herb, it seems he may be cracking up himself from the strain of treating Laird.

I may sound flippant in describing this loopy book, but that’s not because I dislike it. It’s actually one of the most interesting novels I’ve read in some time, with an unusually gripping and inventive narrative drive.

Author Tom Marshall, a noted Canadian poet, relates his story in fragmented, time-tripping fashion, delving out plot points on a strict need-to-know basis. Many chapters are presented as collections of competing voices denoted by names over blocks of text, and others in more straightforward novelistic fashion. The mix works quite well overall, with elements that initially seem confusing and/or pretentious balanced and eventually explained by the less showy portions.

CHANGELINGS is also quite sound from a psychological standpoint. Laird and Eleanor’s day-to-day realities, marked by periodic “blackouts,” are convincing and disturbingly rendered, while the actions of their multiple selves are likewise entirely convincing, as confirmed by nonfiction accounts like SYBIL, THE MINDS OF BILLY MILLIGAN and WHEN RABBIT HOWLS.

But Marshall hasn’t exactly made things easy on himself. Laird, Eleanor and their various personalities comprise a dozen or so central characters (in addition to Herb the shrink and his wife Alice) and just as many subplots. The fact that Marshall is able to hold this unruly tale together, and craft such a spellbinding piece of work in the bargain, is by itself a mighty impressive accomplishment.