The Mermaid by Christina Henry
Publisher: Titan Books
Publication date: 05 June 2018
Genre: Historical fantasy
Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This review is spoiler-free.
Retellings are a fairly new subgenre for me, and while I really enjoy them it can be a little tiresome to see the same fairy tales told over and over again. The Mermaid recently came to my attention and I was incredibly excited for a few reasons:
- I read and really enjoyed Lost Boy last year and loved her unique take on the Peter Pan story.
- It’s not a retelling of the Little Mermaid, but instead an imagining of the Fiji Mermaid. The Fiji Mermaid was a famous hoax that involved a monkey’s body sewn to a fish’s tail. Gross.
- It sounded like a far more accurate depiction of P. T. Barnum than The Greatest Showman, a film I refuse to see. He was a trashcan of a human being and I hate that he’s getting a positive revision.
- It has a tremendous cover. Look at it.
Once there was a mermaid called Amelia who could never be content in the sea, a mermaid who longed to know all the world and all its wonders, and so she came to live on land. Once there was a man called P. T. Barnum, a man who longed to make his fortune by selling the wondrous and miraculous, and there is nothing more miraculous than a real mermaid. Amelia agrees to play the mermaid for Barnum and walk among men in their world, believing she can leave anytime 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.
Henry truly has a knack for retellings — her tales feel so unique, despite the huge quantity of retellings available right now. I love the fact that she chose to write about an actual entity with its own allure and back story rather than tell another fairy tale. Her choice of subject lends a very unique quality to the story and setting — The Mermaid takes place in 19th century New York and centers around P. T. Barnum’s American Museum. Despite this, the story begins like any fairy tale — a lonely fisherman catches a mermaid in his net and lets her go. She crawls to shore to be with him and lives for decades as his wife, and then his widow. I really loved the magical fairy tale quality that begins the book. Henry smoothly transitions her writing and style as Amelia’s story outside the fishing village begins, however the book doesn’t lose that dream-like quality.
Amelia is our Fiji Mermaid, despite the fact that she more likely comes from the depths of the Atlantic than Fiji. She’s a great example of my preferred type of ‘strong female character’. She doesn’t physically fight and kick ass. Instead, she has an incredible inner strength and speaks her mind in a time when a woman’s role was to remain quiet and care for her family. She has so much agency — she makes her own intelligent, informed decisions. Even if the reader doesn’t necessarily agree with her choices — I’d personally run screaming from P. T. Barnum — you still understand why she makes those decisions. She’s the perfect foil to Barnum’s scheming.
Our two other main characters are Barnum himself and his friend and colleague Levi Lyman. Barnum steals the show, of course. I really enjoyed Henry’s depiction of him as a man completely consumed by greed and money, but with his moments of humanity. We get to see his point of view, in which we gain insight into what’s going on in his head rather than the snap judgement of the people around him, and how he reacts to Amelia’s stubbornness and his own drive to make his fortune. He’s a bad man to be sure, however he has his redeeming moments. I personally love grey area characters like this and while I didn’t like him as a person, I really enjoyed reading this version of him.
The only thing in this book that I wasn’t keen on was the romance. After her husband’s death, Amelia eventually has a blossoming romance with another character in the book. I didn’t particularly like the kind of romance this was, although it made complete sense and I was fairly satisfied with the way it played out — it worked well with the story and within the time period. I’m so picky about romance that it’s not hugely surprising I wasn’t too keen.
Overall, The Mermaid is another fantastic addition to Henry’s growing repertoire of retellings. I think of all the retellings I’ve read recently, this is easily one of my favourites. The unique spin of featuring something that existed rather than in fairy tales made the story unique and all the more compelling. I’d highly recommend it!
Want to buy The Mermaid? You can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):
Bonus: going to YALC on Sunday? Christina Henry will be there signing books! How cool is that?