Christina Henry seems to be making a career out of rebooting our favourite childhood stories and giving them a nasty gothic edge, but anyone who goes into The Mermaid expecting the same darkness they experienced in Alice and Red Queen might be disappointed. This is actually quite a sweet, sad tale that is arguably closer in spirit to its source inspiration – Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid – than anything Henry has written before. But don’t be fooled into thinking that Henry has changed tack on her audience because the nightmares are still here, they’re just wrapped up in a closer approximation of real life.
Amelia was a young headstrong mermaid yearning for adventure when she found herself trapped in a fisherman’s net. But the fisherman loves her and she grows to love him, and over the years she watches him grow old even though she never ages. And then she loses him, and after decades of waiting she decides to set off for a new adventure, eventually hearing about an enigmatic showman in search of a real-life mermaid. His name is P.T. Barnum, and suddenly Amelia is the star of his museum of curiosities and the toast of New York City. But celebrity isn’t all Amelia believed it would be, especially when she realises that Barnum is a greedy egomaniac who will stop at nothing to accelerate his fame and fortune, and not everyone who visits the freak show wishes her well. In fact, there are many people who believe Amelia is evil, and Amelia is farther away than ever from the freedom she yearns for.
So, as you can see from the synopsis, what Henry’s giving us isn’t too far from a hundred mermaid stories we’ve already read and seen before, and anyone who fell in love with Hugh Jackman’s Barnum in The Greatest Showman is going to be in for a tough ride when they discover what the author has done with his character. But what The Mermaid accomplishes – and accomplishes very well – is a convincing marriage of history with fairy tale, as well as examining what it means to be human without ever really feeling a part of the human world. It’s a classic outsider story and even though we always know what’s coming, Henry’s writing still manages to entertain. But our biggest problem with The Mermaid is that it very much feels like two separate stories, and unfortunately the most compelling story – the pre-Barnum romance with the kindly fisherman – is done and dusted far too quickly. The rest of the book moves nicely, but it loses some heart as well. Maybe the villainous caricature of Barnum is to blame. If Henry could have avoided the melodrama and told her fairytale in the more magical-realism style of an author like Peter S. Beagle, The Mermaid could have been really special.
THE MERMAID / AUTHOR: CHRISTINA HENRY / PUBLISHER: TITAN BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW