Sunday 10 April 2016

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Review: Drown by Esther Dalseno

Drown by Esther DalsenoDrown by Esther Dalseno (bought) - Seven emotionless princesses.
Three ghostly sirens.
A beautiful, malicious witch haunted by memories.
A handsome, self-mutilating prince.

Belonging to a race that is mostly animal with little humanity, a world obsessed with beauty where morality holds no sway, a little mermaid escapes to the ocean’s surface. Discovering music, a magnificent palace of glass and limestone, and a troubled human prince, she is driven by love to consult the elusive sea-witch who secretly dominates the entire species of merfolk. Upon paying an enormous price for her humanity, the little mermaid begins a new life, uncovering secrets of sexuality and the Immortal Soul. As a deadly virus threatens to contaminate the bloodstreams of the whole merfolk race, the little mermaid must choose between the lives of her people, the man she loves, or herself.

A complete reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale, this is a magical-realist fable that captures the essence of sacrifice and the price of humanity.
From Goodreads.

The Little Mermaid has been my favourite Disney movie for as along as I can remember. As a child, I wanted to be a mermaid when I grew up. At the time, Ariel was the only character in an animated movie who had red hair, like me, and so I was drawn to her. But on top of that, she could sing, and she lived in the sea with all the pretty fishes! I have also always loved fish. I was a teenager when I finally read the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, and I fell in love with The Little Mermaid even more! I loved how dark it was, but also how beautifully tragic. Ever since learning of YA fairy tale retellings, I've been longing for a a retelling of The Little Mermaid, so when I found a review of Drown by Esther Dalseno from Tara of Cattitude & Co, I couldn't stop longing for it until it was in my hands. As I have loved The Little Mermaid in both it's forms for so many years, I was a little wary when first reading - I would have been devastated if it completely butchered a story a loved so much, and so disappointed. However, I needn't have feared; not only is Drown a wonderful retelling, it's also a beautiful story in it's own right.

Normally I give my own summary of the books I review, but Drown stays so close to the original Hans Christian Anderson story, I don't think it's necessary, especially with the description from Goodreads above. Drown feels like a love letter from Dalseno to the great Hans Christian Anderson, so well and respectfully does it stick to the original story. These days, retellings tend to take a fairy tale, keep all the significant and important elements, and change everything else so it's almost unrecognisable and completely original. This isn't a bad thing, I have completely loved pretty much all the fairy tale retellings I've read, and you're always left guessing as to what would happen because it's so unlike the original. However, with Drown, Dalseno has pretty much taken the whole of the original story, and lovingly moulded and shaped it, expanding it to a full-length novel. Drown is the story we know, but there's more backstory and world building. We learn about how the merfolk came to be, why the witch is so cruel and evil, and so much more. So beautifully crafted is this story, it's impossible not to feel how much Dalseno loves the original story, and so as I was reading, I felt Dalseno understood me. "She gets it!" I would think, and would feel such a rush of affection for the author who not only shared my love for this story, but also used that love to write such an achingly gorgeous retelling.

Enough of my gushing, and more about the story. As I mentioned, Dalseno gives The Little Mermaid world building that the original doesn't have. Merfolk have very little humanity, and because of this, they are all but emotionless. More animal than human, their faces always remain expressionless. They have no interest in anything other than eating, buying trinkets and ornaments, and looking at themselves and their beauty in the mirror. They are unintelligent and shallow, and do not like questions. The Little Mermaid is different. She's inquisitive, so full of questions she annoys her older sisters and her nanny, and knows that her facial movements tend to scare those around her. So she limits her facial expressions, and learns not to outwardly express her joy or excitement. There's a reason she's different, which becomes apparent as you read on.

What's especially wonderful about Drown is that although it would have been a fantasy story anyway, it's a magic realism story. It has the trademark wonderful, lyrical writing, and has the ordinary become something extraordinary, like a crying lighthouse - you will see. I always find magic realism to be completely enchanting, and Drown is no different. The thing with magic realism is it can take something dark and make it seem at the very least something that you accept, if not something that seems beautiful. The currency of the merfolk world is beauty. Not beautiful things, but your own beauty. The more beautiful you are, the more you can buy - food for example - but the thing with beauty being the currency is that the more you buy, the more you become unattractive. Because to give beauty, it must be cut off. Hair, for example, or maybe a finger or a limb. The merfolk need to butcher themselves in order to survive. Let that sink in. It's horrific, but it's written in such a way that you barely even register it as being as shocking as it is. But merfolk put a lot of status on beauty, too, so if you're ugly, not only are you poor, you're also shunned. The disabled are treated as repulsive, frightening, and not worthy of anyone's time. They are left to starve, because prices go up to prevent them from buying, as their custom isn't wanted. Although extreme, if you think about it, it's not too different to how our society treats disabled people; ignored, left out, or without access to what non-disabled people take for granted.

Disability is not the only thing Dalseno subtly comments on. She also looks into depression and self-harming. The Prince (who is also a person of colour, though his race/ethnicity isn't given) isn't happy with his life. He doesn't want to be a Prince, to become a King, to rule, but he can see no-way of escaping. He tries to relieve his pain by cutting into his skin, and so his body is a lattice of criss-cross scars. We actually see the Prince self-harm, and you're almost numb to it. It's written to shock without seeming shocking. Do not misunderstand; Dalseno isn't romanticising self-harm, she's shining a light on it and making the reader aware through the style of writing.

Drown is beautiful and enchanting, dark and tragic. It's the The Little Mermaid retelling I have been waiting all this time for, and I can't thank Dalseno enough for writing it.

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Published: 31st October 2015
Publisher: 3 Little Birds Books
Esther Dalseno's Website


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