by Elizabeth Fama
It was a woman–as pale and luminescent as a ghost, with swirling white hair. Ezra startled, dropping his pencil into the water. Her face snapped toward him. Her eyes were too large, clear green, and had horizontal, slit-shaped pupils, reminiscent of an octopus.
Did your pulse quicken when you read that paragraph? Mine did! I had a feeling I was going to love this book, because it blends several different things that I love: mermaids, the nineteenth century, and ghosts. What I wasn’t prepared for was an unconventionally striking story that will definitely not appeal to someone looking for a typical YA paranormal book. I found this dark fairy tale to be wildly exciting and utterly gorgeous, however, and I think it will find its audience in readers who enjoy literary fiction or more mature YA.
In the late 1800s, a mermaid named Syrenka makes a terrible mistake in judgment as she seeks companionship. More than a hundred years later, 16-year-old Hester searches for the mystery behind a tragic curse that has haunted her family for generations. The book alternates between past and present in a small fishing town in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the shifts in time and multiple POVs are handled with skillful aplomb. Deep secrets are slowly revealed in both young women’s pasts, and a fine thread of tension running through the book eventually escalates into scenes of shocking madness and violence.
There are despairing stolen souls. Creepy churchyards. A woman drowned in a sarcophagus. Rape. Underwater doll graveyards. A boy who gives his heart for the one he loves. A truly repulsive mermaid queen . Through it all, the seductive beauty of the language irresistibly lures the reader into the book’s unique mythology, so that by the end of the story the lonely, painful fates of the characters seem as gut-wrenchingly immediate as your own.
Even in rage, she was eerily beautiful.
Syrenka is such a splendidly doomed creature, however, that Hester unfortunately pales just a bit in comparison in the beginning. Because readers see the perspectives of both past and present, they’ll likely guess certain truths well before Hester does, which provides a few moments of frustration. Later in the story, however, Hester’s story takes on more shape and her choices are both brave and heartbreaking in their necessity. The plot has many twists and turns, and while I did guess quite a few of the surprises, this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this beautifully crafted story at all.
Mermaid lovers should note the sea creatures in this story are incomparable to anything that has come before them; the disturbing nature of their animal instincts and deadly muscularity is boldly unapologetic, and the story is all the better for it.
Readers who appreciate literary young adult fiction will love this book. Monstrous Beauty‘s dark moodiness is incredibly evocative, and the startling originality of its story–as well as the lush vividness of its imagery–will not soon be forgotten.
Strongly recommended: for fans of Angela Carter, Cat Hellison, Margo Lanagan, and possibly Laini Taylor; for adults who don’t normally read young adult fiction and for mature YA readers; and finally, for anyone who has been searching tirelessly for a mermaid book that truly transcends its genre.
Heed the siren call: this mermaid story is unlike any other you’ve read.
Rated 5 out of 5 stars
Release Date: September 4, 2012
Read about the beautiful world of Monstrous Beauty in Elizabeth Fama’s guest post!