Friday, December 23, 2011


(review based on an advance reading copy)

I recently attended a literature conference (Sirens 2011) that focused on female monsters. The conference both deconstructed the concept of a monster and analyzed in what ways women and monsters meld together into one idea. Medusa is a prime example. She’s demonized in mythology as a hideous, malicious beast, but what exactly brought her to such a fate? According to one myth, Poseidon raped Medusa, once a beautiful maiden, in Athena’s temple. Medusa deserved punishment for “allowing” herself to be raped, and in the temple of the virgin goddess no less; therefore, Athena turned her into a gorgon. Sarah Porter’s haunting story takes another feminine demon, the siren-like mermaid, and gives her the depth and layers she deserves.

This story moved me right from the start. Luce has an unusual background and yet she remains relatable. Her mother died when she was young and Luce cannot reconcile her memories of the father she adored with the person people describe as a criminal who kidnapped her. Unfortunately, he, too, dies - in a storm at sea. Now Luce must live with her alcoholic uncle, who dated her mother before her father stole her away, and doesn’t keep his bitterness a secret. Drunken beatings are common for Luce now, but after the abuse escalates she tumbles off a cliff into the sea below. Instead of dying, she becomes a mermaid.

Not anyone can become a mermaid. The book speaks of a “dark shimmering” around not only all mermaids but all humans who have the potential to become a mermaid. I can’t think of one word to describe what this shimmering represents: darkness would be my easy choice, but it’s not always the same kind of darkness. Also, a rich, spoilt girl becomes a mermaid, even though her shimmering is less darkness and more emptiness.

At first Luce seems to have discovered the haven for which she longed. A tribe of mermaids finds her after her transformation and welcomes her into their midst. They explain about the timahk, the rules that govern mermaid tribes, such as the rule that states no mermaid is ever allowed to hurt another mermaid or the one that forbids they interact with humans. Violation of the timahk results in banishment from the tribe, an essential death sentence in a dangerous ocean.  

It doesn’t take Luce long to learn there’s a dark side to being a mermaid. Sometimes her pain rises up inside her, rises up in the form of a song, a song that lures humans to their deaths, lures ships to the rocks. She doesn’t want to murder anyone, but it seems to be part of being a mermaid. Even as she tries to fight it, she yearns to sing and her singing only brings destruction and death.

Men cannot become mermaids. This keeps the focus on the girls and their relationships. I confess that I’m filled with admiration for Porter that she managed to write a young adult story without romance that is no less compelling for the absence of boys and crushes. Friendships are plenty complex and well-written ones like these don’t need a romance subplot to keep the reader’s attention. There are already an abundance of star-crossed romances, but what about star-crossed friendships? Porter captures just that with the relationship between the tribe leader Catarina and Luce. The slang “frenemies” comes to mind, though it sounds like a cheap word for this convoluted, profound bond. Catarina both elevates Luce above the other girls and occasionally treats her with cold disdain. It all comes down to singing in mermaid society. The best singer leads the tribe, and Luce may just rival Catarina’s cruel but beautiful voice. 

Of course, what makes this book especially interesting is how many ways the status quo becomes upended. Luce discovers mermaids breaking the timahk and must decide whether to keep their secrets or reveal all and let them be exiled. New mermaids join the tribe, with their own sad tales, and some upset the order and calm that once existed more than others. The primary conflict, though, (the source of the tension between her and Catarina) remains Luce’s reluctance to come to terms with what she has become. Rather than accept that she’s a monster now, Luce practices her signing in private, hoping that with enough effort she can contort the malicious enchantment that slips from her lips into something good. While a noble and admirable goal, her ambition to change what it means to be a mermaid stirs things up more than she understands or can foresee.

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