Covered in dog hair, Obsessed with books, Wondering what it's all about. I suspect the answer is ice cream and the ocean.
Original Publication Year: 2004
Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Format: eBook - Thanks to Knopf/Doubleday Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced reader copy of this book (via NetGalley). My review reflects my honest opinion of and experience with the book and was not influenced by receiving the book for free from the publisher.
Narrated by: NA
Blurb from Publisher:
In this fantastical novel, the acclaimed author of Longbourn brings us the magical story of a young girl in search of her mother...who just might be a mermaid. Malin has always been different, and when her father dies, leaving her alone, her choice is clear: stay, and remain an outsider forever, or leave in search of the mythical inheritance she is certain awaits her. Apprenticed to a series of strange and wonderful characters, Malin embarks on a grueling journey that crosses oceans and continents from the high seas to desert plains and leads to a discovery that she could never have expected. Beautifully written and hauntingly strange, The Mermaid's Child is a remarkable piece of storytelling, and an utterly unique work of fantasy from literary star Jo Baker.
I need to start this review with some speculation and a nit pick. First the speculation. I received the book as an Advanced Reader's Copy from Netgalley but the book was published in 2004. My guess is that the book is being re-printed and promoted in the wake of the success of Jo Baker's Pride and Prejudice-adjacent novel Longbourn? Perhaps it was only previously published in the U.K.? I bring it up to note that it is an earlier work by this author. I have not read Longbourn (though I'd very much like to) so didn't read this book with any expectations.
Second the nitpick which is related to the above blurb by the publisher. It's not 100% inaccurate but it paints the picture that this is a magical tale of fantasy and it isn't. There is no magic and it is not a fantasy novel. There are perhaps some surreal elements but its misleading to call it a fantasy. It is in fact rather gritty historical fiction.
I would describe the plot as a rather grim and surreal coming of age tale. Malin is growing up poor, ignorant and soon an orphan in a small isolated town in an undefined time period (probably Victorian) and no clear country (probably England). The only thing that interests her and keeps her going is her father's story that her mother was a mermaid. When a stranger comes to town and shows her some kindness, she sees her ticket out and her chance to look for her mother. She follows him out into the wide world where she quickly learns that it is no less cruel then where she grew up. She becomes a con, a sailor, a slave and a circus performer and with each she finds great sorrow and some joy.
This is a pretty dark book but it keeps from getting sunk in melancholy by the somewhat fairy tale-esque nature of Malin's "adventures". I just spent a whole paragraph above grumbling that it's not fantasy but it doesn't always feel that tethered to reality either. I don't usually enjoy dark books but this one really sucked me in and I think it was the atmosphere. It reminded me of the television show Carnivale which I adored and which also had a sort of tawdry, grim slightly fantastical feel to it. Basically the book felt like this picture:
The writing is also excellent and I really connected with Jo Baker's writing style which also undoubtedly played a part in sucking me in to the book.
Malin is a fine narrator and main character. She has just enough sense of adventure and belief in the magical that despite all the terrible things that happen to her, her voice is never melancholy. She was strong and an interesting mix of practical/competent and a little insane.
The thing that knocked the book down for me was the ending which felt very unsatisfying. The way the story is being told it seems like an old woman telling the story of her life. The book actually ends however, when she is still quite young and just felt incomplete.
Final Verdict: A unique coming of age tale with a good narrative voice, great writing that I found engrossing but ultimately I was a little unsatisfied by the abrupt ending. 3 out of 5 stars.