Monday, April 18, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

This review appeared in the Stratford Gazette on April 7, 2011
Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian

Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

If you're a girl who grew up in the 80s and 90s, brace yourself. Chances are, you loved Disney's The Little Mermaid growing up. If you did, you were likely disappointed when you picked up the original tale and discovered the mermaid dies and the Prince is a fickle toad of a man. So, what if I told you that there's just been a book released that tells the story better than both the versions you know?

Of all who've approached folktales and myths, only Carolyn Turgeon, Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter can really sustain the visceral, archetypal force of the oral tales in their new, print versions. With Mermaid, Turgeon is in fine form.

The mermaid Lenia has come of age, and wants more than anything to experience the world of humans. But, on her visit to the surface, she witnesses a terrible shipwreck. Struck by the beauty of one of the victims, she decides to save him. Unable to live on land and obligated to return to her people, she leaves the Prince in the care of a woman at a convent on a cold, northern shore. Fascinated by the lore of the soul and the warm fragility of human life, Lenia is captivated by the man she leaves behind, and falls in love.

This is where Turgeon's tale diverges, and becomes something more richly alchemical within the imagination than previous versions. The woman at the convent turns out to be Margrethe, the daughter of the warlike Northern King. The Prince is the son of the rival Southern King. Margrethe, of course, only realizes this after she has fallen in love. With the two kingdoms poised to enter a war that could finish them both, Margrethe hatches a plan to marry the Prince and unite the kingdoms. Meanwhile, Lenia has taken the potion that split her tail, and has reunited with the Prince. But, she must convince him to marry her, or she will die a death of pure oblivion - without her family, and without having obtained a soul.

Turgeon's chapters focus alternately on each woman, and the reader can hardly decide for whom to cheer before the next chapter forces her to change sides. Turgeon deftly weaves the simple awe of the natural world into the magic of folktales so that they become seamless, and the folktale's domain expands. By the end, the reader is so ensnared in the plot and atmosphere that the twist ending's catharsis is devoured in one gulp. This is where Turgeon's real skill lies - her nuanced understanding of pace and archetype force us to process written words in the same part of us as spoken words and imagination have always met in myth. Readers who enjoy fast-paced gothic romances will love Mermaid, as will fans of fractured fairy tales and myths. And those of you who've craved a grown-up version of Ariel's story will find something grittier and more surreal than you'd dare hope.

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