UK Publisher: Titan Books
Genre: Fantasy, historical fiction
Once there was a fisherman who lived on a cold and rocky coast and was never able to convince any woman to come away and live in that forbidding place with him. One evening he pulled up his net and found a woman in it. A woman with black hair and eyes as grey as a stormy sea and a gleaming fish’s tail instead of legs.
The storm in her eyes rolled into his heart. She stopped her thrashing and crashing at his voice, though she did not understand his words. But her eyes had seen inside of him, and his loneliness caught her more surely than the net. So she stayed with him, and loved him, though he grew old, and she did not.
Remarks of this strange and unusual woman travelled from village to village and town to town, until they reached the ears of a man whose business was in the selling of the strange and unusual.
His name was P.T. Barnum, and he’d been looking for a mermaid.
I feel like I should start this review by saying that I didn’t really like The Greatest Showman. Part of that may have been that it took four attempts to see the blasted thing, so by the time I finally saw it the prevailing thought was “oh thank God, I don’t have to keep trying to see this”, but a lot of it was my discomfort for the way the character of P.T. Barnum was handled. I was aware that Barnum was a problematic figure. I was also aware that this was a glitz and glamour musical, so he was obviously going to be romanticised and the more difficult aspects of his nature would be glossed over, if not erased entirely. My discomfort came from the fact that, in The Greatest Showman, he was still clearly shown as a self-interested, exploitative, self-aggrandising social climber, but no-one had a problem with this. He routinely treated vulnerable performers poorly, despite assuring them that he cared for them and they were family. They saw this, they were hurt by this, but they… forgave him anyway. Repeatedly. Even though he shows little to no contrition, nor makes any effort to change his behaviours. The Greatest Showman, to me, was the incredible tale of a white man who does what he likes, treats people like dirt, exploits the vulnerable for profit, and suffers no real consequences whatsoever. Art imitating life.
For me, there are two ways to successfully tell a story about Barnum: fully romanticise him and remove this behaviour completely, or be honest that he was, at times, a thoroughly unpleasant person and demonstrate the consequences of this – even if they weren’t suffered by him. The Mermaid takes the other extreme from The Greatest Showman, and instead gives him almost no redeeming features at all.
I had read Henry’s earlier book, Alice, a few years ago, and whilst it was well-written I struggled with the content. Particularly, I struggled with the intense threats of sexual violence which were constantly threaded into the narrative, as if the violence wouldn’t be horrific enough without the sexual aspect. I have not yet read the sequel, Red Queen, because I was hesitant to find myself in a similarly unpleasant narrative.
The Mermaid, and Henry’s other book Lost Boy, are packaged as though they are part of a series of retellings of classic stories with a dark twist. Alice and Red Queen are from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whilst Lost Boy is Peter Pan. Based on that logic, I expected the Mermaid to be Henry’s retelling of The Little Mermaid, and I expected it to be similarly dark – particularly given some of the pull quotes on the cover. I was pleasantly surprised to find I was wrong on both counts.
Whilst perhaps there were elements of The Little Mermaid in the origins of the story, this feels almost entirely new, playing instead with real history and developing a new fantasy from there, woven in and out of actual occurrences. That’s not to say it isn’t dark, but it’s dark in a different way, and the grounding in reality helped the darkness feel less oppressive. There was also a pleasing lack of threats of sexual violence, at least in comparison to Alice. The threats are still there, but they are fewer, and less grotesque.
The blurb on the back of the book is somewhat misleading, covering only two chapters of the story. The mermaid – Amelia – meets her husband at the start of chapter one, and has lost him by the end of it. The chapter spans decades, and is lovely and evocative, but it’s not the story. The fact that it takes up most of the back cover is an interesting choice, but perhaps that was because the bulk of the interest and conflict in the rest of the book can be summarised with that final sentence.
There are a number of perspectives within the book, but the most common are that of Amelia and Levi Lyman, the man Barnum sends to convince Amelia to come join the circus. Lyman is smitten with Amelia almost instantly, and makes a personal vow to prevent Barnum from exploiting her the way he has other ‘exhibits’ in his collection. Amelia is uncomfortable with this – not only is she older than Lyman by a long way, but she is also still grieving her first husband.
You can’t really categorise this as a romance, even though there is a romance in it. It’s an unusual book in that, as a reader, there isn’t an obvious end goal to work towards. Do you want Amelia to become a star for Barnum or return to the sea? Do you want her to fall in love with Lyman or reject humanity entirely? It is interesting to read a book and not know how you want things to turn out, to have no idea what would be the optimal outcome.
Instead, I read the book enjoying Amelia’s reactions to the way Barnum treated his ‘exhibits’ and society treated women. Having lived without the pressures of societal judgement, Amelia does not dip her eyes or hold her tongue, she is straight-backed and ready to express her opinion with confidence. It is reassuring, as Barnum is such an unpleasant character in this, to have a character so unwilling to give him his own way as he tries to steamroller her by sheer force of personality. I loved to loathe him, and enjoyed seeing her every triumph. It was frustrating, however, to see other characters try to convince Amelia to be less than this, to fit in, to cowtow – particularly so when it came from Lyman. Whilst he generally does his best to avoid Barnum exploiting her, occasionally he sees her blinkered by his own view of what women should be. I always find it hard to root for a romance like that.
In general though I really enjoyed this book. The clear research into the history of the setting and the real characters really grounded it, whilst the magic was the right flavour of fantastic to fit in well and not feel jarring. As with Alice, the prose was fluent and evocative, but unlike Alice I never felt excessively uncomfortable or exposed to unnecessary darkness. Perhaps calling this ‘dark’ is misleading – rather, it is almost realistic fantasy. Pragmatic and practical as it considers the world around it, but with just enough magic to make it exciting.
- A historically grounded fantasy which allows the author to show off her narrative skills but contains her ability to take things extremely dark, as she has demonstrated in other works. This made for a more comfortable, enjoyable read for me.
- There is some liberty taken with the use of real historical figures – for example Barnum becomes a bit of a panto villain. Possibly not a book for fans of the Greatest Showman.
- I enjoyed the culture clashes shown, but I wish they had been explored more or some resolution had been found.
Rating: 4/5 – I enjoyed this so much more than Alice, and will now make a point of trying Lost Boy.