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“Barnum knew, better than anyone, that human tendency to want to believe, to want see the extraordinary.”
Told in third-person narration in three alternating perspectives, The Mermaid is an enchanting piece of historical fiction that looks into P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid Hoax of the 1840s. The world Henry crafted is one where the mermaid – Amelia Douglas – was real, and a willing participant in the exhibitions in order to earn money and see the world of humans.
Amelia is a restless mermaid that wants to explore the world, leaving her world behind to explore the unknown. I really enjoyed the “simple magic” of transforming from mermaid to human; it made sense, wasn’t overly complicated, and seemed plausible.
This book is more complex than one might think at the surface. It is more than a mermaid falling in love and leaving her world under the sea behind, more than wanting to believe in the extraordinary, and more than a piece of historical fiction on P.T. Barnum, more than a love story. It is a feminist tale of a strong woman thrust into a world that she was enchanted with and learning the harsh realities of that world.
I appreciated the juxtaposition that Henry created by challenging the problematic aspects of the time period through Amelia’s eyes. As an outsider, Amelia struggles with the disillusionment of seeing the reality of humanity: through the treatment/expectations of women in the period and in how people view her as less than human. We all know that I enjoy strong female characters, and I absolutely adored how Amelia was unwavering in her own beliefs.
I struggled a bit with Barnum’s point of view; I didn’t connect with it. I know it was there to provide insight into the character, and how all he really cared about was money and success, but that was abundantly clear through the other perspectives. For me it was a bit jarring and disengaged me from the story. I was left wanting a bit of worldbuilding – I would have loved a some description of the life Amelia left behind and what being a mermaid among her people is like.
“Freedom was far more intoxication than safety could ever be.”
I enjoyed the cast of characters and their varying reactions to seeing a real mermaid, reflecting on the various reactions people would encounter when seeing something they thought was untrue. But Henry adds another layer of complexity on that, because each character has to reconcile this new knowledge with the woman they had come to know personally.
I will admit that there is something about the writing style that I cannot place that isn’t to my liking beyond Barnum’s POV, but I was so captivated by the plot that I didn’t mind the writing style too much. This was a 5 star plot for me, but the writing style wasn’t for me personally.
The Mermaid is an engaging, fast-paced read that has a bit of everything: supernatural and magical elements, a bit of romance that supplements rather than centers on the story, and complex characters that cannot be easily categorized. This is mostly a character driven story that doesn’t delve much into describing the physical world. Recommended for fans of mythological creatures and historical fiction; who doesn’t love a good mermaid story?
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, for providing me an e-arc of this book in exchange for my honest review. Quotations were taken from an uncorrected proof and are subject to change upon publication. You can find information about my rating criteria here.