Several major novels centred around mermaids are being published this year, to the point that 2018 has been dubbed “the year of the mermaid” in the publishing world. I cannot emphasize how exciting this is for me. Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” was my first fan love, and I’ve grown attached to all fairy tale mermaids by extension. I can only hope the Year of the Mermaid will mark the beginning of a new heyday for them in popular culture. My fondness for them set aside, I see them facilitating many interesting discussions (the obvious topics being femininity, queerness and belonging, but there’s potential for much more). Also, if vampires, werewolves and zombies can get re-imagined over and over, then why not mermaids? All of this to say: I plan on following the Year of the Mermaid closely, and on blogging about the books as much as I can.
When I first looked at the selection of mermaid-centric books published this year, I learned a lesson right off the bat. I had to face the fact that my definition of “mermaid” (female, pretty, naive and definitely tied by heteronormativity and patriarchal rule) was not universal. There are many incarnations of mermaids, such as the circus mermaid, or the monstrous mermaid. Each comes with its own story potential, but can also merge with the others. I can’t help but think of the fairy tale mermaid as the “real” mermaid myth, which is very sad when you think of the sexist implications – please cure me of this, Year of the Mermaid-, but I’m already excited to see how the writers will mix the myths.
Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming, published today, is the first mermaid book I want to talk about. Her mermaids are not of the fairy tale kind…except when they are. It should annoy me that the nature of these mermaids is not straightforward, but I’ve already understood that ambiguity and ambivalence are one of the main pleasures of mermaid stories. And in any case, The Gloaming doesn’t deal in certainties. I actually find it quite difficult to describe. I could tell you it’s the story of a girl named Mara who falls in love with a girl named Pearl on a strangely magic island, but that wouldn’t even begin to cover it. I could keep adding more details: Mara’s family dealing with loss, Mara and her sister wanting to leave the island to find themselves, Mara’s brother’s disability. None of these points nor their sum could ever describe the book however, because it is so much more than its narrative and themes. I thought it missed narrative direction, until I understood that reading The Gloaming is precisely about finding your footing in the air. The book makes its home in the not-quite-familiar, the glimpsed spaces between familiar spaces – real life and fairy tale, past and present, memory and daydreaming. Because the story is so immaterial, reading the book means settling in this in-between. It can be quite disconcerting, but Logan’s voice is so reassuring that there is no doubt it will carry you to the end.
If the Year of the Mermaid selection has stopped me conflating mermaids with fairy tales, The Gloaming specifically has helped me dissociate love from fairy tales. Mara and Pearl’s love, which blossoms under the sea and in a house carved into the side of a hill, should be one of fairy tales; however, it starts to die as soon as Mara begins confusing her life with a story. She then observes:
It’s not like in books, is it? All those love stories – they weren’t about love, really. Why did we never hear any stories about actual love? Then maybe we’d know what we’re supposed to do.”
The connection between love and fairy tales often goes unquestioned, with “fairy tale love” becoming a standard against which to judge real life love. We might wonder whether fairy tale love exists, but not whether love really has anything to do with fairy tales. Logan does, making it clear that the association is not just inaccurate, but dangerous. She opens up a new space by doing so, in which her readers can find another possibility for romantic fulfilment (or liberation, if you want to use political language). The book is gently progressive in this way, and it resonated with me.
The Gloaming is lovely, the book equivalent of cotton candy – you taste the story’s sweetness just as it eludes you. Its immateriality might be a bit odd, but it’s never frustrating. Mostly, it’s everything I hoped a new mermaid story would be: one that opened up new spaces for me to think in, all the while feeding me magic.
Many thanks to Vintage for my proof copy.