Published by BERKLEY on June 19, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Christina Henry’s The Mermaid is a captivating reimaging of the FeeJee Mermaid, one of P.T. Barnum’s infamous hoaxes from the 1840’s. In Henry’s version of the tale, the Mermaid is not a hoax at all. Amelia is a real, live mermaid who lives in the sea until one day when a fisherman catches her in his net. When their eyes meet, Amelia instantly knows that she wants to spend her life with this man, and so when he cuts her free from his net, instead of fleeing to safety, Amelia chooses to come ashore, find the fisherman, and live as his wife. They live together in a cabin overlooking the ocean until the fisherman is lost at sea and Amelia is left all alone.
Rumors about the existence of a mermaid reach the ears of P.T. Barnum, who is always on the lookout for new attractions for his museum. When he hears about Amelia, he knows she is sure to be a money maker for him if he can convince her to join him. He sends an associate to find her and after meeting Barnum, Amelia agrees to play the mermaid in one of Barnum’s attractions. She sets her own terms – a 6 month contract and enough money to be able travel anywhere in the world she wishes to go – and they sign a contract.
At first Amelia is somewhat intrigued by the idea of showing the world what a real mermaid looks like, but the more she sees of humanity and how people behave, the less enamored she is with the idea and the more determined she is to leave the show as soon as her contract is up.
Will Amelia ultimately be free to leave Barnum when her contract is up or will Barnum’s determination to hold on to his moneymaker lead him to try and stand in her way?
Appealing main character. I was drawn to Amelia from the first moment we meet her. First of all, I loved that Henry chose not to give Amelia the half woman half fish appearance that typically comes to mind when we think of mermaids. Instead, she gives Amelia the appearance of being something truly born from the sea. Her body is completely covered in silvery scales and she doesn’t really resemble a human in any way. In addition to giving her this unexpected appearance, Henry also makes Amelia’s transformation from mermaid to human and vice versa sound so beautiful. I loved the idea that it was solely Amelia’s choice which form she took and that all she needed was sand to become human and ocean water to turn back into a mermaid. I thought Henry just did such a beautiful job of bringing this mythology to life.
What really captivated me about Amelia, however, wasn’t really the way she looked. It had more to do with the feminist twist that Henry gives her. Amelia is a force to be reckoned with, a woman ahead of her time, and it’s mainly because coming from the sea, she really has no idea how society expects women to behave. The more she learns about society’s expectations for women, the more she begins to dislike the whole idea of society. She values her own freedom and independence above all else, and she has no use for anyone who tries to stand in her way and hold her back. Because of this, she stands up to Barnum and challenges him in ways that he never expects to be challenged. Barnum is portrayed as kind of a jerk as well so it makes it very easy to cheer Amelia on.
Atmospheric writing: The Mermaid is not what I would consider to be a fast paced novel. Instead, it’s one of those novels where the storytelling is just so exquisite I felt as if a spell was being cast over me drawing me deeper and deeper into the tale with each page that I read.
Henry’s use of vivid descriptions made me feel like I had stepped back in time to 1840’s America. I could feel my nose wrinkling in disgust at some of the less savory smells that were present on the streets of a less than sanitary New York City. In contrast, Henry’s attention to detail also made me feel like I was at the ocean with Amelia. I could practically hear the waves slapping the shore and smell the salt in the air. Henry’s writing reminds me very much of Alice Hoffman’s, which is a good thing since Hoffman is one of my favorites.
Social commentary: For the most part, The Mermaid reads like part fairy tale/part historical fiction. It’s whimsical and almost otherworldly at times because of the mermaid’s presence and the mythology surrounding her, but at the same time, the story also contains a powerful social commentary on the lack of women’s rights and about how restricting societal expectations for women were during this time period. It becomes especially evident in scenes between Amelia and Barnum’s wife, Charity. There are many times when Charity is the one who seems like she’s living in a cage rather than Amelia. Amelia even begins to pity Charity because she has so little freedom.
Amelia not only sees and speaks out against the fundamental wrongness of this lack of rights for women, but she also exposes how inhumane humans can actually be. She is appalled by the idea that Barnum thinks he has a right to own people or animals, and she is also dismayed when the mermaid tour travels south and she sees slaves working the fields and being mistreated. Through Amelia’s eyes, Henry delivers a pretty clear message that humans could use a little more humanity.
The only issue I really had with the novel was the character of Levi Lyman. He is the associate of Barnum’s who is sent to find the Mermaid in the first place. I liked him well enough, especially in the sense that he clearly had Amelia’s best interests at the forefront of his mind at all times. My only issue was that it felt like I didn’t really get to know nearly as much about him as I would have liked. Same thing with Barnum’s wife, Charity. They both intrigued me and while there were hints of what they were like, I just wanted a little more.
The Mermaid is a beautifully written story that is sure to captivate fans of both historical fiction and mythology. One caveat I’ll add is that Henry admits she has written the version of Barnum that she needed for this story, so I’d recommend taking this portrayal of him with a grain of salt since this isn’t meant to be a biography. It is an exquisite work of fiction though and I fully expect it to land of my list of favorite 2018 reads.
From the author of Lost Boy comes a historical fairy tale about a mermaid who leaves the sea for love and later finds herself in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as the real Fiji mermaid. However, leaving the museum may be harder than leaving the sea ever was.
Once there was a mermaid who longed to know of more than her ocean home and her people. One day a fisherman trapped her in his net but couldn’t bear to keep her. But his eyes were lonely and caught her more surely than the net, and so she evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore. The mermaid, Amelia, became his wife, and they lived on a cliff above the ocean for ever so many years, until one day the fisherman rowed out to sea and did not return.\
P. T. Barnum was looking for marvelous attractions for his American Museum, and he’d heard a rumor of a mermaid who lived on a cliff by the sea. He wanted to make his fortune, and an attraction like Amelia was just the ticket.
Amelia agreed to play the mermaid for Barnum, and she believes she can leave any time she likes. But Barnum has never given up a money-making scheme in his life, and he’s determined to hold on to his mermaid.