Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon
Published by Broadway, an imprint of Random House
Locked away in a convent by her father, Princess Margarethe is bored and feels overly sheltered. She knows her father is simply trying to keep her safe, as threat of war looms with the Southern Kingdom, but she longs for freedom, for adventure. Under the sea another princess, her mermaid complement, Lenia longs for adventure as well. She is lured by the promise of new things above the sea. On her birthday, Lenia takes a trip to the surface in the midst of a raging storm and comes across a ship breaking apart. After seeing many men die beneath the waves, she sees the man she has fixated on fall into the water and becomes determined to save him. Lenia pulls the man safety on the beach by Margarethe’s convent, summoning Margarethe down from the towers to summon help for the man.
Tending to the man, Margarethe begins to fall in love, just as Lenia did when she saw him on the boat. It turns out, however, that the man is actually Prince Christian of the Southern Kingdom. Margarethe’s father is preparing even more for war now, believing, or choosing to believe, that Christian was near her convent for purposes of war. Margarethe believes she must marry Christian to spare her country the pain of additional years of warfare. Meanwhile, Lenia has given up her voice and life with her family under the sea to become human in an attempt to win Christian’s love, setting the two women in competition with one another. One for her soul, the other for the souls of her people.
Like the original fairy tale, Mermaid is a darkly beautiful story. Perhaps the thing that impressed me the most was the relationship between Margarethe and Lenia. Before becoming competitors for Christian’s love they shared an understanding and a deep connection. The fact that Turgeon tore my heart between Margarethe and Lenia, that I couldn’t decide whether I was rooting for the title character or the woman whose entire country depended on her, is a testament to the empathy of her writing style. For such a short book, Mermaid packed an emotional punch.
I read “Mermaid” in preparation for the most recent episode of our podcast, What’s Old is New, this one on fairy tales.
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