Coincidentally the second piece of media released recently that I’ve taken in having to do with the historical figure of PT Barnum; one more and it’s a pattern. But in The Mermaid, the story is not per say about him, but rather about a fictional recounting of a mermaid who finds herself in his exploitative employ (inspired by the infamous Fiji mermaid hoax). But despite the magical elements therein, this novel is more of an introspective exploration of personhood, freedom, and human cruelty.
The Mermaid begins with what almost comes across as an old legend told about one of the inhabitants of a small town: a mermaid (Amelia) who wanted to explore the world and ended up leaving the sea, only to find love and a quiet home amongst the people there. But just as she longed to see more than just the sea, she eventually also wants to see more of the world of humans beyond her small coastal village, and ends up sought out to become a new exhibit for PT Barnum’s museum in New York. Here, she learns more about the ways of the human world, and finds herself not liking all that she sees, once again wanting to leave the place she initially sought out but found was not ultimately right for her.
The action and plot of the novel very quickly tells almost a whole story in itself within the first section, only to then drag on a bit through the major center, and then quicken up at the end again. This didn’t leave a lot of breathing room or time for development during this back section of the novel, where many of the changes of heart and development of major relationship changes took place. Despite this, however, the progression of the story made sense and the conclusion felt nicely wrapped up, if perhaps a little quick to come to at the end.
One of the major strengths of The Mermaid is how many issues of humanity are touched upon, illuminating certain hypocrisies and things about our North American world which don’t entirely make sense or do any good: we see the dynamics and gendered roles of women versus men, the differing of others in harmful ways, the wanting to push one word and truth of religion upon those who are happy as they are, exploitation from people who just want to make money off of others, etc etc. This is often taken up through the voice of Amelia herself, as she tries to learn about human life but struggles to see why certain things must be the way that they are, though of course we also see this through the cruelties and manipulations of PT Barnum (while technically a historical fiction novel, I’d wager this portrayal is pretty accurate of him).
While I did love the way these topics were woven into the story, however, a major sticking point for me with the novel is almost a sense of distance between the characters and myself: glimpses of their inner selves and introspections would come to light only to be quickly snuffed out. And within a novel that doesn’t per say have action ripping through every chapter, there could have been a way to develop more of a connection with the reader. In particular, Amelia is our conduit throughout the novel (though the point of view does switch from time to time), and we are to understand she is different and a sense of how she understands things is somewhat developed, but there is a bit of an impenetrable coldness there. This coolness of Amelia is mentioned by other characters, but I feel like as the reader trying to break into her point of view, this was a bit frustrating when it extended to myself. Perhaps this was just me, but I think it is a case of a distance in the tone of the writing? It’s hard to explain.
Ultimately, this is a lovely story about finding freedom and navigating the strange waters of humanity. But it all seemed to clip along without letting me totally in a wall in the way. Nonetheless, still enjoyable and not a difficult read by any means, and I may be inclined to take a look at some other novels by Christina Henry to see if it’s just the writing style that doesn’t grab me, or if it was the story and characterization all along.