May 07, 2015

Elijah's Mermaid - Essie Fox

Orion Publishing Group, 2012.

Three Stars

Elijah’s Mermaid is an extremely well-researched historical novel – as evidenced by the extensive end notes – but it is perhaps too obviously researched, too self-consciously Victorian. While it has many classic Gothic elements (visions of horror, a woman in distress at the hands of a tyrannical male character), it just wasn’t dark and atmospheric enough for me to really feel the Gothic creepiness. It was more like the author was telling me, “See, this is a Gothic novel, it has all the right parts.” They just weren’t put together quite right for me.

The plotline follows two parallel love stories, both based on love at first sight and completely unconvincing. The lovers barely speak and in fact the majority of their relationships are based on memories of their first meetings. In Elijah’s case, he idealizes his “mermaid” just as much as the tyrant he is attempting to rescue her from. Although the reader is told about all of this great romance, we aren’t really shown any emotional responses – unless they jump straight from ambivalence to hysteria.

There is an obvious juxtaposition between the two female main characters, who alternate in narrating the novel. It is a contrast between the high-brow world of art and literature as it dips down into its parallel, the underworld of London, illustrated with the typical brothels and freak show tents. These clichéd settings felt overwrought, and while they were highly descriptive, it was often overdone. The contrast continued between the two narrators: while Pearl is born in the seedy underbelly of the city, populated with sinister pimps and well-intentioned prostitutes, Lily is raised in the country, in a life of privilege and familial love. However, the two women’s voices are so similar that when my attention wandered (and it did), I had a hard time figuring out which one was speaking.

I could have overlooked the heavy-handed Gothic setting and the unemotional characters if I had been more excited by the mystery aspects of the novel. However, Fox doesn’t seem to trust the reader to put together any of the plot elements on their own, so it is laid out in narrators’ speeches and everything is tied up in a neat package at the end. The postscript polished up any remaining loose ends, and overall the ending was just too convenient and contrived.

Despite this seemingly negative review, there were certainly aspects of it that I enjoyed. It started out with great intrigue – the discovery of a web-footed little girl and two orphan twins – but as it slowed down I lost interest. I do love the Gothic themes, albeit when they are carried off with a lighter touch. I think most of all I was disappointed because this was recommended to me after reading Rosie Garland’s The Palace Of Curiosities, which I loved. Elijah’s Mermaid did not measure up. It will certainly be enjoyable for hardcore fans of Victorian fiction, and I will definitely try more by Fox in the future – this one just didn’t quite work for me.

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