Malin Reed is raised by her father, who tells her she is the daughter of a mermaid. Her father, the ferry operator, is affectionate, but everyone else in town treats her with disdain. Malin herself is an odd mixture, a girl naive enough to believe in mermaids but hard schooled, bullied by the village boys and by her teacher. But she has seen a mermaid herself, when the circus was in town.
When her father dies, her grandmother tells her she can’t control her (although we see little evidence that she is uncontrollable) and sends her to “Uncle George” to be a skivvy and bar maid. There she is mistreated and learns to service more than the bar.
Then one night she walks off with a stranger, a man who has given her a smile. He has promised to deliver a rain machine to the village, which is in a terrible drought. With her myopic naivety, she hasn’t even realized he is a con artist.
So begins a picaresque journey for Malin that eventually becomes a search for her mermaid mother. This search takes her to many unlikely places.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this novel. Were it not for the realism of Malin’s situation, I would take it more for a fantasy, and that is how it is being marketed. But it isn’t really a fantasy except possibly in the narrator’s mind, nor is it magical realism. Unlikely is the word to apply to her adventures but then again, I’m not sure we’re supposed to take Malin’s story that literally. She tips us off in the first few pages that she may be an unreliable narrator.
Still, there is not much to anchor this book except Malin’s character. Most of the other characters are one-dimensional, and anyway we don’t spend much time with them.
This is just an observation, but I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say this is the fourth historical novel I’ve read this year in which a girl is disguised as a boy. So, what’s up with that? Are historical novelists bothered by the restrictions a woman was subject to in the past?
I guess I would sum up by saying I found the novel mildly entertaining. It starts out fairly believably and quickly becomes rather grim but with each adventure also becomes less likely. It’s as though it wants to be closer to something like The Rathbones but doesn’t quite manage to push out the boat.