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.
What I Thought:
So a book about P. T. Barnum coming out just when The Greatest Showman is popular? He must be a Hugh Jackman-style good guy, right? Wrong!
Christina Henry’s The Mermaid tells the story of one of Barnum’s most notorious bits of 19th Century humbug, The Feejee Mermaid, but what if the Mermaid was real?
If you’ve read any of Christina Henry’s earlier work, you’ll realise that any tale the comes from her will be a wee bit dark than the average, and this is so, here in the story of a mermaid who is captured by a fisherman, who releases her back into the ocean. Her connection with him causes her to return to him and live as his wife (as she is a Splash-type Mermaid, with legs on land and a tail in the water).
As the years roll by, Amelia (the name she has taken) does not age while her husband does so inevitably rumours begin of this strange, ageless woman living in isolation near the ocean. These rumours make it back to P. T. Barnum, who is looking for a new attraction for his American Museum.
The Barnum in this book is absolutely not the man in The Greatest Showman and it really is a pity that the book and movie were so close in release dates, as I’m sure they will continue to attract the comparison. The Barnum here is very much more as the actual man was reputed to be – a cynical, money-grubbing louse of a man who treated his family like dirt and exploited his attractions, rather than empowering them.
But he has met his match in Amelia. Our Mermaid is an enigmatic figure who deals patiently with humans, although she doesn’t always understand them. Barnum thinks she will be an easy mark as she has lived in such isolation for so long, but she is wise in ways he can never understand.
I was lucky enough to hear Christina Henry speak about The Mermaid at YALC 2018 and her research on Barnum and his attractions was extensive and hearing her speak added a lot of depth to my own understanding of the book.
As with the previous book of Christina’s that I’ve read, Lost Boy, there is a very dark tone to an otherwise quite light fantasy subject. What could seem like a very simple story is so layered in her books that they are quite compulsive reading and also contain deeper, societal comments and issues that are subtly woven through the narrative.
It’s timely that I’m writing this review now, as I’ve just received a copy of Christina Henry’s next book – a retelling of Red Riding Hood – which I will eagerly leap into as so far I’ve loved her books and love the way she takes the stories that we’ve all grown up with and gives them a subtle but fundamental twist!
The Mermaid is published by Titan Books.
Please note: I was sent a copy of this book for review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.