22 June 2018

Review - The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Design by Julia Lloyd
The Mermaid
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 19 June 2018
PB, 321pp

Source: Review copy kindly provided by the publisher. (Thank you!)

Following on from Henry's retellings of Alice (as an abused girl adrift in a dangerous world) and of Peter Pan, this book is, as the name makes clear, her take on the legend of the mermaid who falls for a human man.

Rather than focussing on the remote fishing village where that happens, however, The Mermaid dispenses with the human husband briskly and follows Amelia's later life. Tempted to swim down the Big City (New York) she falls in with that great showman and liar, PT Barnum who, not surprisingly, wants to exhibit her in his "American Museum".

I admired the way that Henry transitions her story, beginning in familiar fairytale vein ("once there was a fisherman, a lonely man") then moving into a plain (and rather moving) depiction of Amelia's life with Jack and finally confronting the emotional complexities and social realities of 19th century New York.

Here Amelia has to navigate not only unfamiliar conventions - the constricting clothes, rules about who she may talk to and be alone with - but a delicate web of relationships within Barnum's museum, with his wife, Charity, his lieutenant, Levi (who found Amelia in the first place) and with wider society which has definite views on a young woman (even if she "isn't human") who appears naked in a tank of water.

Most of all, she suffers from the attention of a world of men. Indeed her situation is almost the personification of one subject to "male gaze":

She could think only of the eyes, the parade of eyes that would march past her all day.

Later, the theme of human cruelty becomes even more explicit when Barnum sends Amelia, accompanied by a motley group of performers and exhibits including an unfortunate orang-utan, to the South and Amelia witnesses caged and chained humans - something she had thought only happened to animals (and mermaids).

The writing here, describing Amelia's plight and turmoil, is right on the nose as the pressure builds and Amelia's relationship with Levi, hitherto her friend and protector, fractures:

He would not be converted. Amelia finally realised it was because he himself did not understand what it meant to be different and to have people expect you to change for their sake. She realised that no man could understand this, really, though they expected their wives to do so every day.

Amelia is driven into ever tighter corners - and dangers - both from the contradictions of her relationships with the men around her and the prejudices of society. She is out of her element, both literally and figuratively.

It's an enjoyable read, both more and less rooted in the real world than Henry's earlier books - more in the literal setting and the presence of historical characters, less in being more "magical". These skilfully blended elements keep the reader alert for what may happen next - we may think we know how a mermaid story ends - and provide a perfect backdrop for Henry's astute observation of human society.

For more information or to buy the book, see the publisher's website here.

(Finally, isn't that cover by Julia Lloyd gorgeous? - and so in keeping with the designs for Henry's earlier books)

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