The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was a Mermaid by Tania Unsworth, illustrated by Helen Crawford-White
Not out until 12th July, but well worth waiting for, this middle grade (junior fiction age 9+) mermaid book is another triumph from the dark pen of Tania Unsworth. A master at combining reality with tinges of dark fantasy, and beguiling the reader with intrigues of what is real and what is make believe, Unsworth’s new novel picks up beautifully on the current zeitgeist for mermaid stories.
Stella is terrified of water, yet has a penchant for the ocean and the huge picture of the sea that hangs in the back of her house. Her mother died when she was eight, and left Stella a necklace called ‘the word of the sea’, but no one seems to be able to give her more information on it. When her grandmother, suffering from a form of dementia, gives Stella a hint that her mother may have been a mermaid, Stella follows a series of clues that leads her to a place called Crystal Cove and a mermaid show, where things aren’t always as they seem.
Good, sparse yet engaging text leads the reader, with Stella, into a labyrinth of truths and untruths, as she investigates whether her mother was a mermaid. The book also investigates the nature of friendship – Stella finds this difficult but has made a friend in the flamboyant Cam. There is also a look at the reliance children place upon adults to keep them safe and reveal the truth to them, but in typical Unsworth style, there is a sharp twist, and a fearsome and chillingly real villain.
The book is great at its description of the real world, especially the seaside town to which Stella runs away, but it also has a wonderful handle on depicting Stella’s inner thoughts, fears and motivations. By adding her spin on magical realism in the way of mermaids, Unsworth allows Stella and the reader to ask the bigger questions in life too.
A hugely compulsive novel, with superb characterisation. You can pre-order it here.
The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
Almost all the current books about mermaids are influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, whose protagonist sacrifices her world, tail, and voice for love, but none are quite as sharply or devastatingly reimagined as this feminist retelling. Bringing her trademark biting satirical agenda and fight for gender equality to the tale, O’Neill has written a gripping, terribly dark fairy tale for our times.
Gaia’s world is dominated by men, none more so than her powerful and controlling father. When she spies a human boy on a boat, she falls for him and decides to sacrifice her world, and mutilate her body, in order to be with him. Unfortunately, she has gambled on his looks alone, and the reader becomes more swiftly aware than Gaia how reckless this is. The reader’s awareness of the palpable horror of her situation, a description of her ever-shredding feet that is almost too painful to read, and a mounting frustration at the treatment of women throughout, and Gaia’s hopes in particular which are so much pinned on frivolity and appearance, make this an engaging but demanding read.
O’Neill goes to great lengths here to subvert the original fairy tale so that she can pose an exploration of women as more than just a stereotype – more than just erotic objects, or manipulative shrews, but as multi-layered beings – fallible, abused, powerful, exotic, all at once. The Sea Witch is shown as feisty and motivated, not just a Disney character of pure evil revelling in her own wickedness, but in fact a believable and sumptuous character who is the most free of all the women, by vaunt of being most comfortable with who she is.
In fact, in some places it brings to mind what was really embedded in Christian Andersen’s text, which has been lost to the images in our minds of red-headed Ariel with her big blue eyes. It’s astonishing that so much of the misogynistic cruelty and darkness resides in the original story, and to find that O’Neill hasn’t deviated as much as we might think.
The book also gives a beautiful twist to women above the sea’s surface. They are not as free as Gaia imagines, and the prince is preoccupied and ungrateful – not the fairy tale beau of generosity and unparalleled power. Layers of lust and love, sibling rivalry and power dynamics ebb and flow throughout the book. It doesn’t smash the patriarchy so much as stimulate young women to think about who they are and their position in life. Clever, thoughtful and raging – this is not a soothing or subtle tale. For YA readership. Take a dip here.
Bad Mermaids: On the Rocks by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft.
For much younger readers – those aged about seven and up, Sibeal Pounder is an absolute joy to read. Her Witch Wars series is wacky and zany and never fails to raise a smile, and the Bad Mermaids series elicits the same response. On the Rocks is the second in the series about three mermaids accompanied by a talking seahorse.
Pounder’s ultimate strength is her exquisite world-building, in this case, the undersea kingdoms of the mer people. The vocabulary is broad ranging, with many plays on words and satirical digs at our normal world, (Pounder is inventive with transport and fashion) and conjures a playful fun underwater plot that keeps the reader absorbed and extremely entertained. She makes fun of the world as she writes and makes subtle winks to a feminist agenda – mermaids happily burp bubbles, which turns upside down the idea that mermaids are just aesthetic beauties, and give each other plenty of sass in their dialogue. Each mermaid has her own particular and distinctive character traits and it makes for a diverse and fascinating story.
In On the Rocks, the three mermaid heroines from book one are stuck aboard a spooky ship, but a human, Paris Silkensocks, discovers a plot to destroy the mermaid world. Paris must find the mermaids in time and avert a crabtastrophe. Fun and frolicks. With scattered black and white illustrations from Jason Cockcroft. Swim with mermaids here.
Lorali by Laura Dockrill
From zany to zanier, Dockrill’s writing style can be a bit of an acquired taste – veering towards the wacky and unpredictable, so tackling mermaids and the fantastical seems like a good fit. Dockrill has two books published in her mermaid series, the first of which, Lorali, was published in 2015.
Rory finds a naked girl washed up under Hastings pier during a storm on his sixteenth birthday. But even more surprising is where she comes from. Lorali has to get used to some strange things in the ‘walking’ world, but it’s Rory’s gradual awakening to Lorali’s world and why she’s running from the sea that becomes the centrepiece of this intriguing novel.
Dockrill deals cleverly with her convoluted plot, telling the story from three points of view: Rory, Lorali, and the sea – the last of which provides the reader with the background to the world of the mermaids.
But it’s Dockrill’s handling of the teen world that is where she is most adept. The mermaid’s newness to the world is not unlike that of a teenager, exploring themselves and their surroundings for the first time as realisation dawns of the sort of adult they might turn into, and the choices they make.
There is a raw darkness to the book too, jumping from the realism of a seaside town to a world in which strange weather and pirates rule. Dockrill’s words tumble over like the crashing of the waves, and her nod away from fairy tale and to modernity lies in the way in which she addresses feminism and misogyny, but not always in the way in which the reader expects. For a YA audience. You can buy it here.
There are a few adult novels published in the past year or so that also feature mermaids, creatures that speak to our times. Mermaids are regarded as freaks, albeit beautiful ones, and in today’s society, when we are constantly alert to ‘otherness’ and ‘diversity’, the concept of mer-people on land or humans at sea is all about how we fit in, and the similarities and differences between us. Happy swimming.