Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Berkley (June 19, 2018)
Length: 336 pages
The Mermaid turned out to be a slight departure from the previous fairy tale-inspired books by Christina Henry, delivering a historical fantasy with mythological leanings rather than a dark or horror retelling. The story follows a young mermaid who yearned to see more of the world beyond her watery realm, venturing further and further away from home following in the wake of human ships until one day she traveled a little too far and lost her way. In the waters off a small coastal town in Maine, she became entangled in a fishing net. But Jack, the fisherman who caught her, took one look at her wild eyes and cut her loose, knowing in his heart that she was meant to be free.
But to both their surprise, the mermaid returned to Jack, for she had looked into his eyes too and recognized not only a kindness there, but also a loneliness that she understood. Evoking her magic, she transformed into a human so that she could live on land. After adopting the new name of Amelia, the mermaid eventually married Jack, and the two lived in happiness and love until one morning, he rowed out with the other fishing boats but never made it back.
Filled with grief, Amelia spends the next ten years looking out to sea every day from her rocky perch, never growing older even as the townspeople aged around her. Inevitably, rumors of a beautiful mermaid soon spread and reached the ears of a certain notorious showman in New York by the name of P.T. Barnum. Always on the lookout for strange new attractions, Barnum dispatches his business associate Levi Lyman to Maine in the hopes that the young man will be able to convince this extraordinary young woman to work for him.
It never fails; as soon as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shutters its doors, that’s when it seems the world suddenly develops a fascination with P.T. Barnum, because all sorts of books and movies about him are coming out of the woodwork lately. In the case of The Mermaid, the story is set in the period of his life between the early to mid-1840s, or around the time Barnum was first shown the infamous Fiji Mermaid by his friend Moses Kimball, leading to his decision to exhibit the fake monkey-fish hybrid in his museum of curiosities. In this novel, however, Barnum is unsatisfied with a mere “humbug”, desiring something more substantial to show to his audience, and by golly it didn’t matter to him if he had to bully, cajole, or manipulate some poor unsuspecting backwater young girl to play pretend for months on end, he was going to get his “real” mermaid. Needless to say, Henry’s portrayal of Barnum is closer to the figure of the exploitative and shrewd con artist he was purported to be, rather than the charming, big-hearted man he was in a particular musical starring Hugh Jackman.
Luckily for us though, for a woman who has only spent a relatively short time living amongst humans, Amelia is a lot less naïve than Barnum had hoped she would be. I loved that she’s a fighter who realizes that, as much as she adores the world-above-the-sea, human society is flawed and full of injustices, and she’s not about to let herself become another one of Barnum’s “oddities” to be exploited. Very soon, when Barnum realizes that he’s got the real deal on his hands, Amelia knows that he needs her more than she needs him, and she’s not afraid to push back and demand that she be able to work on her own terms. This mermaid knows what she wants and she’s not above doing a bit of her own hard-bargaining to get it, reminding me how much I enjoy stories where pompous arrogant master manipulators are taken down a notch by being beaten at their own game.
Perhaps my favorite character in this book though, was Levi. Relatively little is known about the real Levi Lyman, so I think the author had a bit of fun creating a life and personality for him. He made a good ally for Amelia, and later a worthy love interest.
In terms of criticisms, I thought the ending was a bit rushed and filled with forced dramatics. Maybe Henry was just in a hurry to wrap things up, but at least the rest of the story was nicely paced. I also think that the label of “historical fairy tale” is a pretty apt description, though like most books written in this style, this means characterization can be rather archetypal and clichéd, at times even over-the-top or excessive.
Overall, if you were a fan of Christina Henry’s other fairy-tale inspired novels, you will probably enjoy The Mermaid well, bearing in mind that it’s a lot lighter in tone and lacks a lot of the brutality and darkness found in the Alice duology or Lost Boy (some might actually see that as a good thing). It’s more of a historical at heart, with a strong element of myth and magic. If this combination of history and fantasy appeals to you, I would recommend it.