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.
Mermaids and their ilk have never been quite as popular in modern culture as other fantastical creatures, such as vampires and werewolves, and yet their stories still manage to pique our curiosity, from Disney’s sanitised retelling of The Little Mermaid, to Oscar winner The Shape of Water.
In mermaid lore, when it comes to the transformation from creature of the sea to human form, there is often a particular magic spell, or curse of some kind, in operation. Christina Henry’s novel, The Mermaid, begins with the premise that the ability to undertake this transformation is simply part of mermaid physiology, and although it is referred to as a kind of magic, and has its own physical laws, it seems clear that this is just a natural phenomenon for this species.
This mermaid is not the beautiful, bare-breasted woman with the shining tail of a fish that is depicted in human art. She is something fiercer, wilder, and entirely of the sea; sharp-toothed and -clawed, highly intelligent and without, at first, human language. She falls in love with Jack, when he accidentally catches her in his fishing net, and then lets her go. The first, and shortest, part of the book tells the story of their relationship, in a way not dissimilar to that shown in Up, and if you’ve seen that Pixar movie you’ll know how the rest of this relationship plays out. Be ready to shed a tear.
The bulk of the book then deals with how Amelia – her chosen human name – is recruited and subsequently employed by P.T. Barnum: American showman, displayer of curiosities and promoter of hoaxes. He has recently come into possession of the celebrated Fiji Mermaid, and even he can see that it’s an unconvincing fake. He needs a girl to add to his display, someone who can trick the public into believing that she is a real mermaid. He doesn’t count on stumbling across someone who doesn’t have to.
In Amelia, Barnum has more than met his match, and he is surprised that he cannot manipulate her and mould her to his will. She has an advocate in Levi Lyman, who works for Barnum but likes to think that he represents Amelia’s best interests. It’s interesting to note that all men in this book are compared by Amelia to her beloved Jack, even though he is – of necessity – scantily described and largely absent from the story. He becomes the yardstick by which all are measured.
The real-life P. T. Barnum and his hoaxes are fascinating, and Christina Henry reimagines the man and his work to include the exhibition of a real live mermaid. She suggests that although people want to believe in magical things, it sometimes take the addition of a little fakery to make them accept the existence of the real thing. The story also touches on the need to possess the rare and wondrous, and the mania with which celebrities are treated.
The language of this book, with its rhythm and flow, is very much that of the classic fairytale: simple, beautiful, more complex than it seems. Although told in the third person, in the ‘once upon a time’ tradition, the sympathetic point of view is almost wholly with Amelia. She is an alien to human culture, and the restrictions placed on women in 1840s America are less beyond her comprehension than beneath her dignity and beyond her rationale. Through her mermaid, Christina Henry exposes the ridiculousness of female fashion, the hypocrisy of human morality, and the illogic of inequality: there is no freak show quite like civilised human society.
Yet Amelia, rather than looking coldly upon these land-beings – one of whom she fell in love with – feels only empathy and compassion for them. Although she looks to be barely out of her teens, Amelia is no fragile child-woman, questioning why things should be as they are, rather she is as shrewd as her 70-plus years of life allow. She conforms to these strange human traditions only as far as is comfortable for her, but when they go too far she is prepared to walk away.
The Mermaid explores themes such as the assumption of superiority; the subjugation of women, different races, other species; the cruelty of exploitation for profit and prestige; and the need for the truth to be wrapped in lies for it to be believed. Through Amelia we see the gaze of the audience, and question what the difference is between innocent, curious, voyeuristic, and downright dangerous; how a slight change in situation can turn nude into naked, and a woman into an animal. On the surface it is a critique of 1840s America, but the light-handed lessons here are applicable everywhere and in any time period.
The Mermaid is a fantastic feminist fairytale, full of romance, wonder, joy, and peril. If you are drawn to the sea, if you are fascinated by freak shows, if you want to believe in happy endings – this might be the book for you.