The Mermaid, by Christina Henry (Review)

“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.”

Rating: 3.5 stars.

I read this after reading Alice by the same author, and I was equally as excited by it. The titular mermaid is Amelia, who is caught by a fisherman and falls in love with him. Decades later, mourning her first love, she sets out to create a life in the city after P.T. Barnum tries to hire her for his show.

Christina Henry is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors, because her characters have depth and intrigue, but they’re also realistic in the setting that they belong in. This story is set in the 1800s, and the characters reflect that in their attitudes and their behaviours. The best example of this is P.T. Barnum, who is a much closer reflection to the Barnum of history than the Greatest Showman Barnum is (even if that musical is a masterpiece!). I found myself often putting the book down to search for more information about Barnum, about the FeeJee Mermaid and all of his tangled history, and this was the first time I’d ever heard of Joice Heth. As such, this is a book that touches on topics of racism, misogyny and religion prompted hatred of the Other, but Henry handles them well, showing them through the lense of an outsider who is as disapproving as the reader feels. I was often angry and frustrated by the way characters were being treated, but that was because the portrayal felt so accurate.

As for the book itself, Henry’s descriptions are flawless as usual, setting an atmosphere that feels so real I can taste the salt of the sea, and imagine the wind in Amelia’s hair in Maine, all the way down to the creak of damp wood and the cramped pressure of a tank. This book is a lovely balance of mythology and realism, carefully balanced enough that even the moments of pure mysticism feel like they could have happened, and a mermaid really could have upped and joined the circus. 

The Mermaid is less dark than Alice, even with all of the complicated aspects of racism and misogyny, but that isn’t a bad thing, as this is far more a tale of loss and love and a search for belonging than it is a dark fairytale. Amelia isn’t pretty or romantic, she’s a wild, sharp-toothed, scaled creature of the sea, caught between two worlds she doesn’t belong to and unwilling to sacrifice her sense of self to fit in.

Note: This review was copied verbatim from my Goodreads review dated May 12th 2019.

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