Esther Dalseno. Drown: a Twisted Take on the Classic Fairy Tale. Berlin: 3 Little Birds Books, 2015.
This book gave me such mixed feelings. I first learned of it from Tess of Tesscatiful, and it seemed right up my alley – a dark twist on “The Little Mermaid” with a whole “fictional mythology” surrounding the existence of merpeople:
It came about, of course, because of the wrath of a woman.
The rumour was to blame. A commonplace, folklore rumour typical to a fishing village settled on the coast of one of the world’s most unpredictable seas. That rumour still exists and hardly in this town alone. It is written on the face of every person you have ever met, in the subtext of every book you’ve ever read. It is the hope of every unhappy person. Right now, it is on the tip of your tongue.
It really was a creative, beautiful fleshing out of the original story that retained the fairy tale feel, as Tess noted, by leaving all of the characters nameless. They are simply “the mermaid,” “the Prince,” “the Sea King,” etc. And I loved the moments of magical realism (or can I call it that if the story is already a fantasy?) – heartbeats that were loud enough for everyone to hear, hearts that exploded from too many new ideas, the smell of flowers found wherever merpeople felt love, the things the mermaid could see in the Uncle’s eyes –
“My Uncle,” said the Prince by way of an excuse, “his behavior…that is to say, his conduct…he hasn’t been the same since the war.”
The little mermaid nodded, for she had detected the shadows in his Uncle’s eyes, and sometimes she saw figures there, black figures with their hair on fire.
Oh, and there’s this gorgeous description of the sun and stars:
The God was going to sleep now, for half of it was buried in the ocean, but the little mermaid was not sad because she knew that she would see it again. Time ticked by, and she did not move, and when the God was fast asleep, she saw its angels emerge in the sky and wink down at her, thousands of them.
I did find it interesting that Tess and I interpreted very differently the mermaid’s main desire. In Tess’ view, the mermaid’s first priority was to gain an Immortal Soul, and the Prince was the cherry on top, but I saw it the other way around. I think the story focuses much more on the mermaid’s obsession with the Prince than on her occasional thoughts about the Immortal Soul. The idea of love is a huge theme in the story; it’s what throws the entire mer-kingdom into chaos after the mermaid admits to one of her sisters her feelings for the Prince. Overall, there’s much more focus on the merpeople’s hearts than on their lack of souls.
Now, as lovely as the story was, there were a number of elements that substantially bothered me. Like the constant proofreading errors. And the implication that it would be terrible if the prince were more interested in men than women. And the many negative comments about gypsies (or, rather, “sea gypsies”):
…the gypsy folk, who travelled in groups all over the ocean, causing strife and chaos.
It was her very good fortune that she was not attacked by gypsies on her way…
She felt sorry for the hideous sea-gypsies…
…as everyone knew that disease and all manner of foul things came from close fraternization with sea-gypsies.
Then there are the logic issues:
- The mermaid is supposed to feel unbearable pain with every step she takes, yet no one seems to notice her pain until weeks later, when the Prince wonders if her shoes are pinching her feet. Apparently she has extremely good control of her facial expressions (except she usually doesn’t, as her sisters always notice), and manages never to limp except for that one time the Prince notices.
- Why does the nanny say there’s no way to gain an Immortal Soul when the mermaid first asks about it, but when she confronts the mermaid for constantly going to the surface to see the Prince, the nanny suddenly remembers that one can gain a soul by marrying a human?
- As Tess points out, the mermaid has an odd ability to taste things despite not having a tongue anymore.
- If the merpeople are supposed to lack the ability to feel, why are they terrified whenever they hear someone’s heartbeat? And why is the Sea King nervous and fearful after he mates with the sea witch (and how exactly do merpeople mate? That’s a bit of world-building I wish Desano had established)? Is it because of the spell she gave him earlier? That should’ve been explained more clearly.
And why do the merpeople have this saying –
“Those who small-talk for a year
won’t then leave those who they hold dear”
– if they don’t have the ability to hold anyone dear?
I wanted to like this story so much more. It’s a creative fairy tale re-telling and it’s about mermaids, but the proofreading and logical errors really detracted from my enjoyment. I’m glad for the experience, but it could have been so much better.