Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker

Growing up motherless in an isolated community, Malin Reed has always been made to feel different from everybody else. The fact that, according to Malin's father, the absent mother was actually a mermaid only makes matters worse. When Malin's father dies, leaving behind nothing but his stories, Malin's choice at last becomes clear: stay, and never feel at home, or leave and go in search of mermaids and the fantastical inheritance that, up to now, has always seemed completely out of reach. a picaresque journey that crosses oceans and continents - from the high seas to desert plains, from a time of slavery to life in a circus - until it finally leads to a discovery that is the very last thing Malin would ever have expected... Beautifully written and hauntingly strange, set in an unspecified historical past, The Mermaid's Child is a remarkable piece of storytelling, weaving together the fantastical and the inevitable through the power of the imagination.

Goodreads review

The content and tone of this book came as a surprise. The cover and description in no way prepared me for the level of realism, and the physical violence and casual sex in the book. I was expecting a rather fantastical story, which might or might not be magic realism, something suited to teenage female readers. I don't usually look at other reviews of books before I review them, but in this case I was fascinated to see if other readers shared my experience. And they did. Sadly this has resulted in quite a few negative or neutral reviews on Goodreads. 

Once I was over my surprise, as I was very quickly, I soon settled into enjoying Malin's story. This is a fascinating book. The description says the story is set in an unspecified historical past. To my mind it is set in a fantasy world that is very clearly based on historical realities of our own world. Baker has researched the appalling treatment of sailors on sailing ships in the 18th and 19th centuries and the even worse treatment of black slaves on slave ships. This is the brutal world in which Malin moves and Baker does not shrink from portraying it. I am, as some of you will know, a historian by training and I like this historical accuracy in fantasy. It is a form of magic realism I enjoy and indeed write.

In this pseudo-historical world Baker's use of magic or folkloric elements works well. Malin believes in mermaids. There is one in a circus that comes to Malin's village. We may suspect that this circus is a fraud, but Malin believes in it. Malin is an androgenous character. We are unclear as to Malin's gender until the very end of the book. Malin signs up as a sailor on a slaving ship, where s/he falls in love with another older sailor, a woman who has masqueraded as a man for years in pursuit of her career. This may appear to be unbelievable to a modern reader, but British folksongs are full of women dressing up as sailors and little drummer boys and indeed there are actual historical cases of women successfuly passing themselves off as men, the most famous being the military surgeon James Barry whose deception was not discovered until her death. Reality can be more fantastical than fiction.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

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