Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea
McSweeney's McMullens, 2014; 331 pp
Reviewed by Elise Matthews
I've always been a huge fan of YA lit, but a lot of YA books that I've read lately seem redundant. So many feel like other books I've read, particularly books that have recently been adapted to film. Some people like to make the argument that there are no new ideas, no new stories, but I'm not one of those people. I know there are new stories out there that I haven't read before—and I want to read them.
Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea is one such book. Sure, it's got familiar YA tropes, but the pieces here are not always put together in a familiar way. So much is shifted and feels fresh. There's a young, female protagonist, Sophie, who discovers she's more than just a normal teenage girl, that she has a magical heritage. She is the heroine of an age-old prophecy and must immediately embark on a quest. She has a mother, but her mother isn't super available, and Sophie has never met her father. But then she's also a kind of grubby kid, not really interested in growing up yet. She still thinks boys are gross even though her best friend is starting to get boy crazy. She doesn't care about her appearance or anything yet; in fact, she goes days without showering and never combs her hair, so she looks a bit feral most of the time. The absence of a love interest is particularly refreshing here. There's enough going on that romantic tension isn't needed to ramp up the story. Bonus points here because no romantic interest means no love triangle.
The book opens with a myth of a girl, Sophie, who will bring magic back to the world to heal it, but the first few chapters are grounded in realism. The fantastical aspects sneak their way in slowly, until the world of the last chapter is unrecognizable from the world of the first chapter.
The structure is definitely familiar: a typical quest narrative. This book, the first in a trilogy, follows to a T the separation stages of Joseph Campbell's monomyth (also known as the hero's journey) as outlined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: the call to adventure, refusal of the call, supernatural aid, and crossing the threshold. At the end of the book, Sophie enters the belly of the whale stage (the last of the separation stages), which is, I assume, where the second book will pick up and follow the initiation stages, with the third book covering the return stages.
There are familiar Jungian archetypes, too: the hero (Sophie), who is also the child, the supernatural guide and helpers, a devil figure, a wise old woman. But they don't look so familiar. The guide, for instance, is a mermaid, and not your typical, youthful, seductive mermaid. She has trash in her hair, is visibly old, and curses in broken English. Pigeons come to the aid of our hero instead of crows or other animals typically associated with being familiars or magical helpers.
There is clear good and evil in this world, but that clarity is disrupted by a secondary supernatural character who argues that there is no good or evil, only destiny, despite the insistence from the good and evil characters that they are all in fact, respectively, good and evil. Anything that initially seems simple grows in complexity as the story unfolds, and Sophie learns that she has to figure some things out for herself rather than just trust everything she's told. While being generally predictable plot-wise, this book also manages to surprise when it comes to character development, world building, and other aspects. It's a delightful mix of these contradictions.
This book, as mentioned, is just the beginning of a much larger story, but it already has so much depth. Sophie knows her quest and knows that it will take her entire life and knows that it is bigger than anything she ever considered for her life. She knows that she must sacrifice everything to fulfill her destiny. This is exciting and scary and also a little crazy to Sophie, and Tea conveys these feeling and everything in between in a way that feels authentic.
From the first page, this was a book I didn't want to put down, and I can't wait for the second installment to come out in October.