REVIEW: ELIJAH'S MERMAID BY ESSIE FOX

ELIJAH’S MERMAID
Author: Essie Fox
Orion RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Elijah’s Mermaid has garnered some mixed reviews – I get the feeling reading them that it’s one of those books you either like or not. The cover, blurb and words “gloriously gothic” each attracted my interest, so I was keen to give it a go; I haven’t read Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist, which also attracted mixed reviews, so I had no pre-conceived ideas about her as an author.

When Pearl is 14 she finds out that she is to be sold to the highest bidder. Found as a baby floating in the Thames one foggy night, the web-toed baby (the condition is known as syndactyly) was brought up by a brothel madam – an unconventional upbringing, to say the least. But although she is well aware of what goes on in the brothel, Pearl is pampered, cossetted and protected, with Mrs Hibbert as her chief protector.

Elijah and Lily are orphaned twins who were rescued from a foundling hospital. Raised by their grandfather, writer Augustus Lamb, their life is one of relative privilege. A visit to Cremorne and a freak show tent (where a “real” mermaid is on display) results in a short meeting with Pearl that has repercussions for all of them, binding their fates in a dark and dangerous way. Elijah is bewitched by the ethereal girl, as is Osborne Black – the man who ultimately acquires Pearl.

Six years later, Pearl and Osborne turn up at Kingsland House as a married couple. Pearl claims never to have been in Cremorne, asserting that she was brought up in Italy, even though Lily and Elijah are convinced she is the same girl they met. Elijah accepts Osborne’s offer to become his assistant and leaves for London with the couple. When he goes missing, Lily is determined to find him. In doing so, a world of obsessive love and betrayal is uncovered, one that links the respectable world of Victorian culture with London’s treacherous, seedy underworld. Nothing and no one is what it seems.

Elijah’s Mermaid is a darkly gothic tale of obsession in all its forms. From infatuation to addiction, most of the characters experience a form of obsession.  Some are consumed; others are jolted into reality and emerge changed (whether for the better is debatable. It’s also a story in which fairy tales and fantasy juxtapose and meld together, with most characters struggling (or choosing) to distinguish between fantasy and fact. For Elijah, Lily and Pearl, fresh with youthful naiveté, the Cremorne freak show is both a turning point in the story and in their young lives. It’s a “coming of age” that preludes their emergence from the fantasy worlds of water babies and mermaids into a strange reality that revolves around the sick fantasies of others.

The characters in Elijah’s Mermaid are colourful and diverse – from gentrified upper middle class to pimps, prostitutes and perverse, abusive villians. The characters were well-drawn: I felt sympathy for Lily, Elijah, Augustus and Pearl; while at times I felt revolted by some characters’ actions. I won’t spoil anything here, but it’s a sad fact that the Victorian times were not as respectable as they appeared and this novel highlights some of the unnatural tendencies that some were victim of.

Elijah, Lily and Pearl all have a voice in the story, sometimes offering overlapping viewpoints and other times picking up after a gap in time. A large part of the story is first-person narrative from Pearl and Lily’s viewpoints, while excerpts from Elijah’s diary and the occasional newspaper article add more depth. I liked this way of telling the story because all viewpoints were needed to make all the connections.

Vivid and atmospheric, Elijah’s Mermaid is an interesting read – it’s unusual and I agree, it won’t be for everyone, but I liked it. A good read for those who like something a bit left-of-centre. Make your own mind up on this one.

Bookish treat: Water is a strong theme in this novel, so how about some juicy, juicy watermelon? Great for attracting water babies, I hear.