Why Fiction is Suddenly Swimming with Mermaids

Posted by Cybil on September 05, 2018


Imogen Hermes Gowar's debut novel The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is an enchanting tale about a merchant, a prostitute, and mythical creatures set in Georgian London. Her novel is among a new trend of mermaid novels, so we asked Gowar to examine why readers are suddenly hearing the siren call of these half-human protagonists.


One summer when I was eight or nine, my parents took me to a castle in Antibes, the Chateau Grimaldi. It sat high above the sea, sheer walls giving way to sheer cliffs. I leant over the battlements staring down at the roiling sea, and felt a vertiginous longing; a terrible fear of the muscular, pulverising waves below combined with an intense desire to leap into them. I understood that this was not the kind of thought I should have, but it revisited me every time I was by the sea (brown crags off the east coast of England, usually, on drizzly days with rattling pebbles rolling underfoot). I became interested in mermaids not as candy-colored waifs, but as agents of vastness, power, destruction.


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I was excited by the idea of girls who could withstand the chill and the salt and the stone-crushing belligerence of the ocean; that the longing and terror I felt came not from the water but from the women within it.

This year has seen an extraordinary glut of mermaid novels by women writers, no two the same. We, the Splash generation, shared our bathtubs with red-haired Ariel dolls: Mermaids were presented to us early, and perhaps we spent our growing years disassembling them, and remodeling them as more faithful reflections of femaleness as we found it.

When we write about mermaids, we write about women: As we peel back the veneer of prettiness, dig through the strata of storytelling, we find a thousand shards of ourselves to reject or reclaim. Mermaids, being between states, have many states, which is sometimes dangerous— as Louise O’Neill points out in The Surface Breaks, her blistering take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, a woman out of place must be put back in it— but also presents a freedom to question convention, and to be frank about feelings we might otherwise suppress. To write about mermaids is also to write about escape.

"What would be the point of a mermaid who looked like any other girl?" asks Pearl, a professional mermaid performer with a screen-printed tail and a collection of wigs "the color of childhood" in Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming. Not for her punters a "sinister, shifting fish-girl": They want escapism. The mundane tricks of the trade—the effort, the discomfort—are, like all beauty regimes, hidden away. "No amount of sequins or pink hair will help you" if you haven’t the strength to swim in a heavy tail, or to maintain the air in your lungs until you reach a discreet breathing tube. The Surface Breaks makes horrifyingly explicit the suffering a mermaid on land must undergo. Her hard-won legs "end in two open wounds, stringy flesh falling off exposed bone"; she starves herself to please first the Sea King, then her human paramour. Encountering a beautiful fat woman, she is shocked: "I did not know that such a body was even allowed to exist."

Illusion, obfuscation, artifice are every mermaid’s stock-in-trade. Researching my own novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, I was struck by the cognitive dissonance of eighteenth-century collectors. Their "mermaid" specimens—grotesque mummified creatures, often made from monkeys’ torsos stitched to salmon tails—looked nothing like those in their imagination, and yet one served as evidence that the other might just exist. The high-class brothel where Hancock’s mermaid is displayed is decked in gorgeous pearls and corals—so are the prostitutes—and it’s a collective triumph of will to ignore the fact that the specimen at the centre of this masquerade is repellent. In the "amphibious" society of 1780s London, country girls hope to transform themselves into duchesses, and merchants to make their fortune in novelties. When my main character, Angelica Neal, swims naked in a fountain singing a sea-shanty, she is a purveyor of erotic wish-fulfillment, no more presenting a real mermaid than she is her real self.


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These contemporary novels share a suspicion of mermaids’ fabled beauty, which rarely exists for their own benefit. The great deceit of the mermaid myth—and the woman myth—is that they owe their power to mere sexual allure: Whether the mermaid is real or fake, her looks are a skimming over of her physical or psychic strength.

Even Heinrich Heine's Lorelei, from his 1824 poem, is "the fairest of maidens," although it’s her voice that’s dangerous. The boatman lured to his death is not inflamed by passion but "seized with a savage woe." It isn’t sex that hooks you; it’s sadness.

In The Surface Breaks there is another race of mermaid, the Rusalkas: "the jilted, the victims, the orphans, and the abused," drowning and devouring men as retribution for their crimes. They are embodiments of every dreadful wrong women swallow, and therefore shunned by their gorgeous cousins until late in the book when their rage becomes a positive force.


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This is the deepest escape of all. Sylvia Plath’s poem, also Lorelei, is a seduction to death or oblivion: Her mermaids "sing/ Of a world more full and clear /Than can be"—the ache of the sea’s vastness is a sensation that must be dulled and suppressed and forgotten: the void is sharp as a diamond, painful in its purity; it is indifferent to us, and we are drawn to it because we long to be lost.

Near the beginning of Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, its main character Lucy is "scared of [the ocean’s] wild ambivalence, so powerful and amorphous, like the depression itself. It didn’t give a fuck about me." Running from life’s disappointments (a break-up; pulled PhD funding; fading youth), Lucy is torn between feeling nothing, and losing herself in feeling. The death sirens offer seems, "the greatest love…to die intoxicated by love and lust," and as it turns out Theo, the merman she meets on the beach, is a creature of sexual fantasy not so different from his traditional female counterparts.

On land, he is physically dependent on Lucy. Hiding from the rest of the world, his eye cannot wander; he offers her mindblowing sex and a relationship that is in effect her personal sandbox in which to work out how deeply she wishes to touch the void, and how devotedly she can bear to love and be loved. Men treat women this way all the time, but some mer-magic is required to subvert the roles.

A mermaid is a prism, which scatters a million visions of womanhood to pick and close from. When we write about mermaids, we have options. How many layers of artifice are there between ourselves and our feelings? What bonds would we like to slip, if we could?

We can choose vengefulness, sexual autonomy, beauty, delicacy, pounding grief. The gorgeous swirling-haired mermaid of fairytale is available to us, but so is the siren calling the exhausted to oblivion. There are many ways to be, and many ways to escape.

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock makes its U.S. debut on September 11th. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf!



Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)

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message 1: by Robert (new)

Robert Jr. A wonderful addition to the Mermaid literature is "The Lake Michigan Mermaid: A Tale in Poems" by Linda Nemec Foster and Anne-Marie Oomen, illustrated by Meredith Ridl (Wayne State University Press, 2018). Quite a different take on the novels mentioned above.


message 2: by Janine (new)

Janine You forgot Sea Witch, which came out just over a month ago. A great origin story for the Sea Witch in the classic Little Mermaid tale. To Kill a Kingdom also should have been mentioned.

There's also a bunch of indie titles I've read in the past year that have mermaids in them.

*Suppressed and Resurfaced is a great romance.

*Of The Deep Mermaid Anthology is a good short story collection.

*I haven't read Salt for Air but it's an upcoming indie title to look out for.


message 3: by C.E. (new)

C.E. Crowder I hope this is the announcement that we're finally getting over our vampires and zombies fixations, moving onto mermaids next. It's high time for something new, and this one comes with a far more interesting case of what's-under-the-hood.


message 4: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Welsh Also, The Seas, by Samantha Hunt.


message 5: by Lynda (new)

Lynda Ah, yes, a lot can be blamed on Ariel addictions in girlhood. I guess the coming generation will be writing about frostier subjects?


message 6: by Jenna (last edited Sep 05, 2018 12:13PM) (new)

Jenna C.E. wrote: "I hope this is the announcement that we're finally getting over our vampires and zombies fixations, moving onto mermaids next. It's high time for something new, and this one comes with a far more i..."
Here here! I'm all for getting away from Zombie fixations!!!


message 7: by Dionaea (new)

Dionaea I like the concept of mermaids but I've never found a book that matches what I want. To me, the most magical thing about mermaids is the setting where they thrive best. The water. Fresh or salt, the underwater world is already enthralling to me and having a merperson pov waxing poetic about their home would be right up my valley. But authors like having their mermaids leave the water and be enthralled with the world I'm already bored with. Or they want to appeal to people who think fish people are hot.


skillwithaquill I'm all for this trend. I think it came out last year, but I've heard good things about The Mermaid's Daughter.


message 9: by Jackie (new)

Jackie Janine wrote: "You forgot Sea Witch, which came out just over a month ago. A great origin story for the Sea Witch in the classic Little Mermaid tale. To Kill a Kingdom also should ..."

Sea Witch is a good book at l have read. I agree it should be in this list.


message 10: by Lara (new)

Lara Goldstein I've never been a huge mermaid fan, but i've definitely enjoyed a couple titles in that vein. The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler and the Atargatis books (Rolling in the Deep and Drowning in the Deep) by Mira Grant. Much love for both of those.


message 12: by Danny (new)

Danny Our Bloody Pearl is another new mermaid inspired book! It's not very well known yet, but it's been getting a lot of praise from those who've read it.

Our Bloody Pearl (These Treacherous Tides #1) by D.N. Bryn


message 13: by Eujean2 (last edited Sep 05, 2018 04:40PM) (new)

Eujean2 In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

I haven't finished it yet, but the main character in In Other Lands is somewhat obsessed with meeting mermaids. The ones in this world are supposed to be rather mean, but he doesn't care.


message 14: by Mohammed (new)

Mohammed Arabey Forget that; The Mermaid
Really one of the best
The Mermaid by Christina Henry


message 15: by Miri (new)

Miri So . . . This isn't a list of good mermaid books. It's not a list at all—it's an essay. I think some of the comments are confused.

I've been put off by the mermaid trend because I generally assume it's fetishistic, whether the idea of mermaids is being sexualized through the male gaze or objectified as Pretty Pretty Princesses. But I forget that when women write, they're often taking back those flattened stories and filling them out again. Gowar's examination of our motives is really intriguing and makes me want to explore it for myself.


message 16: by Akje (new)


message 17: by Lady_Starkov (new)

Lady_Starkov Lara wrote: "I've never been a huge mermaid fan, but i've definitely enjoyed a couple titles in that vein. The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler and the Atargatis books (Rolling in the Deep and Drowning in th..." I have read Rolling in the Deep and it scared the everloving hell out of but it also intrigued me. I liked how the mermaids were portrayed in it.


message 18: by Elentarri (new)

Elentarri Drowntide by Sydney J. Van Scyoc
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8...


message 19: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Lara wrote: "I've never been a huge mermaid fan, but i've definitely enjoyed a couple titles in that vein. The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler and the Atargatis books (Rolling in the Deep and Drowning in th..."
I've never been a huge mermaid fan either. I like the kind that lure men to their death with song way more than the kind that are just alluringly beautiful. I loved The Book of Speculation. The mermaids in that one were definitely unique, ordinary people yet extraordinary and mysterious at the same time. I never heard of the Atagartis books but they look right up my alley.


message 20: by Kristen (new)

Kristen In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield is a great mermaid/alternative history book that is seriously underrated. I highly recommend it.


message 21: by Eule (new)

Eule Lynda wrote: "Ah, yes, a lot can be blamed on Ariel addictions in girlhood. I guess the coming generation will be writing about frostier subjects?"

You made me laugh. Thank you.


I like that we finally get a load of adult books after we had this surge of YA mermaid books a few years back. I read a few of those, but didn't like them much.


message 22: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Kenny Excellent post. Thank you


message 23: by Katlyn (new)

Katlyn Duncan I'm all in for mermaid books, I can't get enough! I also collect any mermaid-inspired notebooks and artwork to fill my writing space.

~Katlyn
The Sisters’ Secrets Rose by Katlyn Duncan


message 24: by Hazel (last edited Oct 21, 2018 06:08AM) (new)

Hazel Sampson I’ve been halfway through the book “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” and I’m loving it. The thing is, while reading a novel based on these mythical creatures, it comes a time where I start to believe as if they exist! That’s the quality of these novels I love the most. If anyone is interested in mermaid themed costume
visit here


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