“He loved the sea more than any person and so was never able to take a wife, for women see what is in men’s hearts more clearly than men would wish.”
Despite all the warnings of her people, there was once a mermaid who longed to know more about humans and the world beyond the sea. She swam farther and farther and ended up trapped in a fisherman’s net. But he saw the wildness in her eyes and she saw the loneliness in his heart, and though he freed her from his net, he captured her all the same. She evoked ancient magic that allowed her to walk the land and became Amelia, the fisherman’s wife.
But magic is tricky and the sea is unforgiving. So while he grew old, she did not. One day he went to the sea and didn’t return. Rumors of a woman who stood on the cliffs of a far-off shore, never aging, waiting for her lost love to come back, reached the ears of a man who knew the power of a good story. And how to sell it.
Amelia agrees to become the Fiji Mermaid in P.T. Barnum’s show, desperate to remember the wild girl she had been when her fisherman caught her, desperate to let go of the grief haunting her heart. She believes she can leave at any time. But Barnum has never been one to let money walk away from him. Not if he can help it.
“Barnum knew, better than anyone, that human tendency to want to believe, to want to see the extraordinary.”
I fell in love with Christina Henry’s writing last year when I read Lost Boy. Her dark take on fairy tales sing to my black heart and The Mermaid did not disappoint! The Mermaid, at its heart, is an examination into the darker tendencies of humanity. How we want to own things that are beautiful. How we sometimes fear the things that are magical. Yet, for all the darkness that she presents, Henry gives us a powerful view on love and acceptance. Both of ourselves and from others.
PT Barnum was a real person, as was the spectacle of the Fiji Mermaid. Henry has taken the idea of fairy tale retellings and given them a new twist, retelling instead moments in history, changing the story and the people to weave a new narrative. Just like other retellings, the result is magical and intoxicating. What would a man like Barnum do if presented with such a woman? With the allure of all that potential money?
“There was really nothing more ridiculous than the thought of Barnum getting taken; if there was any taking to do, Amelia knew very well that he would be the one to do it.”
From the very beginning, Henry weaves the story in a lulling rhythm, that makes it feel like a fairy tale, but also not. Her writing is poetic but precise, drawing the reader in to the deepest parts of her characters hearts. While we see into these deep parts, and often the darker tendencies, The Mermaid is a melancholy examination into the nature of love. Romance isn’t always roses and sweet sentiments. At it’s best, it is simply loving each other for who they are, without demanding change, restraint, or any other trappings.
What makes this story bittersweet, is that Amelia learns just how special her love with Jack was, after she has to navigate the world without it. This exploration of love goes far deeper than the passionate romance of lovers, which is so often the focus. It is the kind of love that lasts centuries. The kind that never dies. That force of love can be good. Or it can be bad. And Henry gives us the entire spectrum to experience.
“Once I loved Jack and lost him, I wasn’t the same as before. Love does that. It changes you in ways that can’t be undone.”
Amelia is one of those characters that I can’t help but love. She is bold, brave, strong. I love how she questions norms and customs, particularly the way women are expected to dress or behave. This commentary doesn’t feel preachy, or as if the author is making a point. Rather it is subtle, and fits with the heart of Amelia’s character.
In fact, the entire novel is a subtle but fierce conversation in feminism. Charity and Caroline, along with Amelia, have to decide what kind of life they want to live. Who they want to be in a world that favors men over women, boys over girls. Even Levi, has to decide what type of man he wants to be, which is a conversation in feminism that needs to happen more frequently.
“Women who did what they liked instead of what other people wished were often accused of witchcraft, because only a witch would be so defiant, or so it was thought.”
I devoured this book on a plane in one sitting. It pulls you in and doesn’t let go. There is a sad, melancholy feel to the book, to Amelia, but it is a beautiful sadness. While it is heartbreaking in some ways, it is a story of resilience and strength. It is about the power of love and how magical finding that love can be. Henry wooed me last year with Lost Boy, and again I am swooning over The Mermaid. Highly, highly recommend!
Thank you First To Read and Berkley Publishing for sending me a review copy!