The Mermaid by Christina Henry
‘So she crossed the ocean and came to the place where there was land. The mermaid spent many days watching the people on shore and the ones who came out to the sea on boats. Always, always she was careful to avoid the hooks and lines and cages and nets, because she had found her freedom and she loved it, and she would not be bound to someone else’s will again.’
Once there was a mermaid trapped in the net of a fisherman. She evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore and for many years they lived as husband and wife. Stories of this strange and unusual woman travelled, until they reached the ears of a man whose business was in selling the strange and unusual. His name was P.T. Barnum, and he’d been looking for a mermaid.
Last year I picked up Christina Henry’s Lost Boy, not expecting a great deal from it, but it fast became one of my favourite books of 2017. Henry’s latest book, The Mermaid, lacks the emotional punch of Lost Boy, but is still an interesting and enjoyable read.
The main problem with this book is its use of fairy tale language and tropes to establish the characters. This meant that all the characters in The Mermaid lack the complexity to make you care about what happens to them. Levi in particular never felt like more than a few loosely collected characteristics – his only real job was to be there for Amelia (the mermaid) to fall in love with. There was great potential with P.T. Barnum – a man ‘with a cash register in place of a heart’ – but he never became more than a stock villain.
The writing is riddled with clichés and isn’t atmospheric enough to conjure a feeling of the time it was set in. Attempts at creating original similes and metaphors tended to be jumbled and confusing, and the story in general was repetitive and dull; it lacked any driving force to keep me engaged.
Despite its lack of intriguing characters, Henry explores some interesting ideas. Amelia is a wild being who struggles to fit in with humans. Though she appears to be human, when others find out what she really is they tend to view her as an animal, a creature who should be kept behind bars.
Henry also uses Amelia’s otherness to explore the position of women in the 19th century, who were treated like property and expected to be subservient to their husbands. Amelia dares to question the rules that keep women confined – physically in corsets, and socially by forcing them to be obedient.
This book certainly has its flaws, but for those who enjoy feminist fairy tales it has a lot to offer.
Many thanks to Titan Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.