Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker

Book club read this month, and the last one picked by our dear friend Ali before she packed up and moved to Edmonton. Boo, hiss! We miss you!

I knew very little about this book before sitting down to read it, and had never delved into this author's works before. I was not at all sure what to expect. It didn't take long to get sucked in, although this was, by turns, a much darker book than I had been expecting. When all you know is that it's about a girl who thinks her mother might have been a mermaid, you're not expecting a 19th-century tale of sexual coercion and prostitution.

At least, I think it's 19th century. It sort of floats timelessly, adjacent to our history but not part of it. Similarly, there are many parts of this book that hearken back to older tales of legends, although always with a remove that makes it unclear whether to take them literally or not. There's even a passage by the Sirens that seems to have been literal. Maybe.

Malin is the daughter of a ferryman, and, she is told by her father, a mermaid. (For much of the first part of the book, Malin isn't gendered, and that raises some questions, and indeed for much of her early life, gender seems to be a fluid thing for her.) I hope it isn't too much of a spoiler if I use "her," given that the back of the book does too.

When her father dies, her grandmother sends her to work for her brutal uncle George who runs a bar. The town is parched through a rough summer, and Malin runs away with a man who promises to bring rain. She hopes one day to find her mother.

But before she can get there, she's pressed into prostitution, and later, poses as a boy to get on board a ship that she doesn't entirely realize is a slaving ship. She spends a lot of time at sea, and later, a lot of time in the air. Not entirely at home in either element, it appears.

Along the way, she has relationships of various kinds (not all of them sexual) with, among others, Joe, the conman/rainmaker, John, a sailor who is not who he appears, an aged scholar (whose name I have forgotten) who sails the seas to escape academic poaching, and a troupe of circus performers. She travels the world in search of her mother, but the answer is left tantalizingly vague.

It's a bit of a misty impressionistic theme holding all these disparate elements together. On the whole, though, I think it works. I found some of the subject matter difficult going, but not enough to put me off the book as a whole. Malin's journey to find her mother and a place for herself is a difficult one, as perhaps it should be. This is a fairy tale with none of the rough edges sanded off.

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