down by the water

I have always had a thing for mermaids. I’ve never been very loud about it, but they’ve always been there. For a desert rat, I’ve always felt this dissolution of anxiety any time I’ve been near the ocean, and even with all the angst surrounding it, I loved being on swim team every summer as a kid because it meant I could constantly dive into a pool of water. I’m not a huge fan of lakes, because they’re like a bad combination of pools and oceans, but I’ll still take them over no water at all. Anyway, I’m really excited that so many authors are coming out with mermaid books this season (like my friend Zoraida!), and that I’m taking a folk and fairy tales class this summer.

Out on June 12 is another YA merman book, Anne Greenwood Brown’s Lies Beneath, about a group of mer-siblings and their summer at Lake Superior. Calder White, the baby brother, and his sisters reunite there each year (the rest of the time, Calder feels the need to get the hell away from them by going all the way to the Bahamas). And oh yeah, they have no father and their mother is dead. That’s important, because this summer, the man they’ve been looking for, Jason Hancock, is finally returning to the lake. His own father had mysterious, shady dealings with Calder’s mother, and he and his sisters have been waiting for decades to kill him in retribution. But Hancock has a deathly phobia of water, so the Whites devise a plan for Calder to seduce Jason’s older daughter Lily in a convoluted effort to get him out on the lake. Guess whether Calder is able to keep up his ruse or if he unexpectedly falls for Lily. I bet you’ll never guess. Ever. It’s never been done before. I’ll give you a teeny spoiler so you can understand how this works: mer-people can voluntarily transform into bipeds, but the longer they go without water, the more their skin cracks and the more depressed and sickly they feel.

Yeah, okay. So that part is lame, especially when you factor in that Lily is a vastly unrealistic character who openly reads Tennyson and other Victorian poets all the time (I like them, too, but I have a hard time believing that any American teenager is unaware of how socially crippling that is, nor is any American teenager immune to social rules and regulations), and that she alternately finds Calder really interesting and really creepy, never seeming like she has any reason for her mercurial behavior.

Aside from Lily being obnoxious, though, this book’s mythology, mer-characters, and prose are really, really awesome. For one, it’s been awhile since I read a YA that was dark but in a valid, still-YA, still-realism (well, speculative, but you know) sort of way, and I give Brown major props for that. I love that this really speaks to old mermaid mythology–mermaids are mean, dudes, not shiny happy fairies. Calder and his sisters are driven to kill, not by slashing anyone open or anything else so base and human, but by sucking out people’s joy and soaking it up, because in this world, mer-people are like reptiles, and they need external sources of light to keep warm (meh metaphor, sorry–cf. Rowling’s dementors and Sarah Porter’s Lost Voices of The Lost Voices Trilogy). Calder’s sisters (though there is one too many for Brown to totally keep their characterizations distinct and their personalities unique) are deliciously evil but still human-like in their pain and angst and teenageryness. The Lake Superior setting is beautifully depicted, and I’ll say again that anytime I bother to notice setting at all, that means it’s fabulous.

I also commend Brown for a) writing a boy, and b) writing about a boy with mommy issues without making him seem girly or weird or gross or childish, just like a real person with issues. Recently I was thinking about how my need to be near water, which also manifests in the catalyst for my family nickname, Blanche (DuBois), would probably be described by Freud as a regression tactic, because I like to submerge myself as much as possible into warm bath water, and I’m sure you can see what mommy issue that suggests. I can see that subtly working through Lies Beneath, too, because Calder deals with psychosexual issues with each of his sisters (who are technically adoptive siblings, but as an adoptee, I will remind you that that does not mean they are not totally and completely regular siblings) and is always trying to work out who his mother was, how she chose to bring him into her family (the best way I can describe Brown’s mythology is that mer-people are created in a similar way to the Buffyverse’s siring of vampires), and where his loyalties should lie, since, after all, he was once human.

My personal reading interests tend toward the psychological, toward the character-driven rather than plot-driven narrative, so I very much liked this book. It’s not perfect, because most of the human characters are super duper lame and one-dimensional, as if Brown spent all her energy on her really awesome White family, but it’s rather good. My biggest turnoff is actually just the fact that I know it’s not a standalone novel, and it should be. Let me get on my soapbox for a moment: publishers are money grubbing whores, and lately they take all good YA and forcefully mold it into a trilogy, whether or not the authors originally plan it, and whether or not any good editor would rightfully suggest it should be. There is nothing wrong with standalone novels, except that they don’t make as much money as series, and I venture to say that this money-above-quality attitude is what triggers a lot of the YA-isn’t-real-literature dissent we see from people lately, and that’s too bad, because if Lies Beneath were just over on the final page, it would be excellent.

I might pretend it is and just never pick up the sequel, because if I live in denial in that area, I can go on thinking that Lies Beneath is a very solid book well worth a summer read.

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