[I received a copy of this from Berkley Books (Penguin Random House) in exchange for an honest review.]
I read Lost Boy by Christina Henry two months ago and, honestly, it found me at the right time. I’d been disappointed by a few Peter Pan retellings as well as in need of some magic, however dark and broody. I also immediately put library holds on her Alice duology which I’m excited to get to soon. Then, later in the summer, I found out that she had a new book out.
Initially, I was under the impression that it was a The Little Mermaid retelling, but a bit of research told me that it was loosely inspired by P.T. Barnum’s Feejee (Fiji) Mermaid attraction presented in his American Museum of Natural History in New York City and Moses Kimball’s Boston Museum in the early 1840s. It, a desiccated monkey’s upper body with a fish tail sown to its torso, was claimed to be a skeleton of a mermaid and led on a publicity tour.
In this book, Amelia (this is the human name she takes) is a real mermaid and ends up working for P.T. Barnum. This is her story.
I read an interview with Christina Henry in SYFY where the author explained that she wanted to explore certain themes through the telling of this story – “grief and loss, greed and desire, and feeling alien in a human society.” These themes, along with others like agency, freedom and choice, especially that of a woman in those times, or of belief, faith, “otherness”, the different ways in which one can be “in a cage” whether physical or metaphorical, form much of the allure of the book. These issues still concern modern society, in whatever way or form, and it made for interesting social and moral discussions. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
North on the coast of Maine, a mermaid gets caught in the net of a fisherman, who lets her go. But she returns, feeling a strange pull towards him, having seen into his heart and realised his loneliness. The moment she touches sand, she transforms into a human woman, though always disconcertingly different. This story of Amelia and her fisherman, Jack, and the many happy years they spend together in his little cottage on top of a cove in the middle of nowhere, was my favourite part of the book. It had a very well-suited dreamy, fairytale style that I missed in the rest of the book, which is more “business-like”.
Then, Jack is lost at sea and Amelia spends a decade mourning for her lost love, hating her beloved ocean for taking him away from her, not wanting to return to her family where she has never been happy. Always restless, searching for adventure and something she can’t quite explain, Amelia initially rebuffs Levi Lyman, the friend and lawyer sent by P.T. Barnum, to procure if not a real mermaid, then someone who could convincingly be passed off as one. But, soon enough, she ends up in New York City.
This is a slow exploration of a mermaid in search of a dream she’s not sure is even possible, along the way, as she feels increasingly trapped and suffocated, realising that the world’s not what it seems and maybe her happiness lies elsewhere, or in other things. It isn’t dark like Henry’s other books, but there’s darkness of a different kind, which suits the story and its thematic preoccupations.
Amelia is a relatable and well-sketched out character. We root for her dreams to succeed, for her to find happiness, for her to find a place of peace and belonging. Though naïve about the norms of society, especially in the big city, Amelia is far from feeble or mousey. She stands up for herself, her beliefs, and her rights, which is especially welcome given the expectations in the 1840s about the “correct” behaviour of “respectable” women. As an outsider, she is better able to see the follies and problems with society and humans. At the same time, there aren’t many redemptive qualities to humanity as a whole, and it feels like she is too disdainful of their ways and rules.
There’s another woman in the story who grows into her own. Barnum’s wife, Charity. I enjoyed seeing her transformation from an unhappy, suppressed and ridiculed house wife to a stronger woman who makes herself heard. The friendship that finally springs up between her and Amelia is heart-warming. As is the influence of living with Amelia in such close quarters over Charity’s oldest daughter Caroline.
Similarly, it is interesting to get to know Levi Lyman beyond the kind man in love with Amelia. Over the course of the story, Levi as well as Charity, are shown to have layered personalities of their own. The same cannot be said for the treatment given to P.T Barnum. In a note at the end of the book, Henry talks about taking great artistic and creative liberties with the source material. I haven’t yet watched The Greatest Showman but am told that the Barnum portrayed there by Hugh Jackman is a far cry from the manipulative, money-obsessed conman in this book – though it’s not that he doesn’t have moments where the author shines a light on his cracks and failings. But at times he does come across as a caricature present simply to act like a foil to Amelia and the rest who are in an increasingly united camp against him. (though at times, despite the efforts at obstacles and the resistance by Barnum, it feels like Amelia gets her way too easily.)
He does however present some interesting discussions about belief. His entire career is based around belief. It’s human nature to want to believe, to escape from our humdrum existence, even if it’s a humbug. But what do you do when faced with the real thing, like Amelia? Henry poses this question and uses her characters to show the different ways possible.
“Belief was more dangerous than all the tale-telling in all the pubs of the world. Humans, Amelia knew, would do anything for belief. They would proselytise from the highest mountain for belief. They would collect like-minded people and form mobs for belief. They would kill one another for belief.”
Then, there is also longing. Amelia’s for something she can’t explain, Barnum’s for riches and a respectable life, Levi’s for a life with Amelia away from Barnum, Charity’s for more courage and freedom. All of this longing seeps into the story and makes for some very interesting character interactions between the main players.
Things I loved about the storytelling style – the magic realism. Mermaid biology and physiology don’t matter because it’s a given that mermaids exist. It’s enough for us to read about Amelia’s transformation between her two forms (I appreciated that Henry didn’t go the cliché “half-fish, half-woman” trope, instead describing Amelia with grey scales all over her body, wild hair, and sharp claws and teeth), see the physical changes described in great detail, and feel her swirling emotions.
The first time she transforms is particularly poignant because of the detail and the insight – the act of discovering a pair of legs instead of a tail and discovering that they weigh you down instead of your expectations of freedom; of needing to weather the elements of sand, wood, glass, the water and the cold against bare, delicate, vulnerable human skin.
Things I didn’t enjoy as much – too much exposition in parts where I would instead have enjoyed seeing more events of the outside world and how they impact our characters.
There is also almost no plot which is fine for a character-centric story, but the story starts to drag around the halfway point without the forward impetus of inciting incidents. The final third of the story reads like an attempt at adding these incidents, but it reads rather out of character, too inorganically dramatic. This is also where the story moves too quickly and feels bundled up, despite the eventual happy ending.
Lost Boy remains my favourite book by the author, but, there was still much I enjoyed in The Mermaid and I’d recommend it for those in the mood for a fable-like feminist historical fiction with fantastical elements grounded in research.
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