Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Review: 'Mermaid' by Carolyn Turgeon

I love walking into my library and having a fairy tale retelling leap out of the stacks at me, rather than having to take a list and hunt around on the off chance that one might be stocked - this is exactly what happened to me with Mermaid. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, and there it was.

Sourced from the Author's website.
I should probably start by saying that I enjoyed reading this book. Too often the English student in me takes over my reviews with so much criticism that I read back over what I've written and wonder how I ever made it through the book in the first place! But I'm glad I've been trained to read with a critical eye. Yes, I have criticisms about this book, but that won't stop me recommending it purely on the basis that it is an enjoyable read.

Firstly, the blurb:
Two sheltered princesses, one wounded warrior; who will live happily ever after? 
Princess Margrethe has been hidden away while her kingdom is at war. One gloomy, windswept morning as she stands in a convent garden overlooking the icy sea, she witnesses a miracle: a glittering mermaid emerging from the waves, a nearly drowned man in her arms. By the time Margrethe reaches the shore, the mermaid has disappeared into the sea. As Margrethe nurses the handsome stranger back to health, she learns that not only is he a prince, he is also the son of her father’s greatest rival. Sure that the mermaid brought this man to her for a reason, Margrethe devises a plan to bring peace to her kingdom. 
Meanwhile, the mermaid princess Lenia longs to return to the human man she carried to safety. She is willing to trade her home, her voice, and even her health for legs and the chance to win his heart….

I have to admit the story is pretty predictable, and despite one slight twist on the original story (partly fuelled by the new character, Margrethe, and partly down to Lenia's actions) Andersen's classic is relatively untampered with. When I finished the book I felt cheated out of the promise that this would be a modern retelling. However, reading back over the reviews I noticed that, cleverly, the word 'modern' wasn't in fact used once, although 're-invention' and 'surprising take' were thrown around.

But then, if the original is so closely adhered to, how 'modern' can you make a story that values women differently? People talk about The Little Mermaid with affection for depicting a woman taking control of her life and pursuing her dreams...but ultimately this dream does not challenge the prevailing discourses that keep women in their proper place, as the Mermaid's desire is to become a wife. In Turgeon's retelling, the role of mother and wife is an unchallenged one; at first Margrethe seems 'modern' in that she has pursued education and takes an interest in politics (the era the book is set in marks this as unusual) but the second her position is threatened by another woman, her political motivations are forgotten amidst a delirium of jealousy, self loathing and body complexes.

Mermaid may not appeal to the feminist in me, but it does the aestheticist; there was a beauty in the imagery and at times a poetic lilt to the language, undoubtedly enhanced by the romantic settings (e.g. a convent on a stormy coastline at the edge of the world), that I would love to see more of in modern fiction.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen this one floating around the net; I think the author might have been interviewed either on Seven Miles of Steel Thistles or Enchanted Conversation; can't remember.

    Sadly, my library is not good about bringing in new books.

    You and I differ on our desire to see the role of wife and mother challenged. I'd not call myself a feminist by any means, except in the sense that I believe men and women are equal in worth, intelligence, and dignity if not in physical reality. Sex is a real thing, whether we like it or not. An actually marvelous thing; I think it's worth celebrating, not ignoring or putting up with as an inconsequential inconvenience.

    I wonder, is it not reverse-sexism to see a woman as anti-feminist if the object of her desire is wifery and motherhood? And isn't the threat the princess feels when the little mermaid comes around not just a human characteristic, and could be just as valid in the case of two men competing for a woman's affection?