I don’t give “scores” and I don’t review books I didn’t like because who needs that kind of negativity in their lives?
I want to start this review off with a confession: I am a huge sucker for clever titles. If a title hints at a deeper meaning, something that I won’t understand until I read the book, I will obsessively search until I grasp that meaning.
Some of my favorite titles of all time include:
THE FIFTH SEASON (NK Jemisin)
THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT (Seth Dickinson)
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS (Ursula K. LeGuin)
THE WAGES OF SIN (Kaite Welsh)
SERMO LUPI AD ANGLOS (“The Sermon of the Wolf to the English”)(Wulfstan, Archbishop of York)
SPEAK THE OCEAN (Rebecca Enzor)
Were all of the above books as enjoyable to read as their titles were titillating? Ehhhhh. Personally, sermons don’t really get my motor going, but I have to give the Archbishop props for using his own name as a threat against the godlessness of his parishioners in the face of the (faithfully heathen) Viking invasions. That level of cleverness outweighs what was, in effect, another dull Sunday lecture.
I can honestly say, though, that Enzor lives up to the promise that her title gives.
This is a book about the mer, which you could probably figure out based on the cover alone. But this is not a pleasant story, and the more I think about it, the less pleasant and more uncomfortable it becomes.
It’s told from dueling perspectives: one human, one mermaid. We get to see the exact same situations from two different points of view, which is a narrative mechanism I am ALSO a sucker for. The story itself has lots of twists (some of which I expected, some I did not), and despite it being a book about freaking mermaids, everything felt, sounded, and seemed legit. Which, in a horror book, is horrifying.
Here’s where the unpleasantness, the visceral discomfort, comes in–for me, at least.
I loathed the human protagonist, Finn. Like, deep-in-my-soul, excitedly-flipping-pages-search-for-his-utter-destruction, I-hate-you-so-much-I-want-to-vomit, despised him.
I know, logically, that the protagonist and the hero don’t have to be the same character, but Enzor did such a great job in the beginning of her book of making Finn despicable that I didn’t want him to get any sort of redemption arc. I kept hoping the mer would eviscerate him and wear his intestines like leis at a lu’au and that never changed, even after the book ended.
Enzor handled his character growth masterfully, and the book’s resolution was completely natural and fully formed. Any and all desire to watch Finn choke on his own blood was a problem with the reader, not the writer.
And yet. I still find myself distraught at my reaction to this character. I’ve read horrible characters before, people who were deliberately unlikeable, and they didn’t stick with me as much as my loathing for Finn did. Still does, in fact.
I read this book in early August, and in spite of how utterly delightful I found it, how late I stayed up reading it on a work night, I couldn’t put aside my own mer-ish desires towards one of the protagonists. So I put off writing a review until I could get past that.
But now I have to wonder: did Enzor know that her readers would see more mer in them than they had originally intended? Instead of giving us a sympathetic human as our looking glass into this world she created, did she intentionally give us one of the worst? Someone who uses other humans and discards them, much the same way the other humans used the mer? Someone whose self-reflection stopped at the surface of a mirror, much the way other humans’ understanding of the mer stopped at the surface of the sea? Someone who viewed his knowledge–indeed, his very existence–as both carrot and stick, much the way other humans viewed their aquatic cattle prods?
Because if that’s the case, then it deserves to be mentioned. And the more I think about the book, even in retrospect, several weeks later, the more I believe that nothing in this book just happened. Enzor seemed to engineer every emotion and counter-emotion the reader might experience–hatred, disgust, narcissism, arousal, anger, love–leading them, step by careful step, to the conclusion that, maybe, there are no good guys.
Which means that we, as the readers, are complicit monsters, no matter who we find more sympathetic.
And that’s a very uncomfortable thought, indeed.
But then, so is speaking the ocean.