Sunday, April 8, 2012

Under the sea

When I peruse the offerings at Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer page, I like to take the opportunity to read both the familiar as well as something that stretches my boundaries (although there remain places I will not go: L. Ron Hubbard). For my most recent choice, I found an author I'd never heard of who writes in a genre that I enjoy: riffing on fairy tales (adult version), even though I don't count the narrator as a personal favorite. The stretch here is the original tale: Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. The story of a young girl who sacrifices her voice for the (inconstant) love of a prince. Ick. Carolyn Turgeon's Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale arrives with a lot of baggage. Will the twist take away that bad taste of misogyny? Well, sort of.

Although it's difficult, try to erase the picture of Disney's mermaid from your head (also that calypso tune). (I realize I'm not helping here, but neither is the author with that scary mermaid image at her website.) Despite the cover image, Turgeon's mermaid has hair the color of the moon and I feel confident does not wear a seashell bra. Does that help?

OK. A young woman named Margrethe (pronounced MAR-greta) has been stashed safely in a convent in the northern part of her father's Northern Kingdom to keep her out of danger while the Northern and Southern Kingdoms brandish their swords at one another. She's standing at the edge of the desolate sea one day when she is astonished to see a woman carrying an unconscious man through the water and onto the beach. The mermaid glances at Margrethe and beckons her to save the man. The sisters of the convent bring the man to safety and nurse him back to health. When he awakens, he believes that Margrethe was the woman who pulled him from the wreck of his sinking ship and brought him to shore. He heals quickly -- although a shimmer remains on his skin where the mermaid touched him -- and leaves the convent. Only afterwards does Margrethe learn that the young man was Prince Christopher, heir to the Southern Kingdom.

Lenia is the mermaid, youngest of the daughters of the mermaid queen. On her 18th birthday, every mermaid is given the opportunity to visit the land of those ugly two-legged creatures who can't live in the beautiful ocean and Lenia looks forward to seeing the creatures -- who have fascinated her from afar -- up close. Swimming to the surface on her birthday, Lenia encounters a sinking ship and curiously watches men die. When she spots Christopher though, she knows she must rescue him. But she remains haunted by him and soon consults the Sea Witch. You may join him on earth, the Witch explains, but you will walk on your new legs feeling as if you were walking on knives and -- by the way -- I'll need your tongue to complete the potion. Lenia chooses the prince and soon is silently ensconced in his bed even though he doesn't remember that she was the one who saved him.

The twist, I suppose, is that this is also Margrethe's story. She, too, has fallen for Prince Christopher and she escapes the Northern Kingdom and proposes a political marriage, one that will unite their warring countries. Unfortunately, she arrives after Lenia -- who has become pregnant -- and must use all her diplomatic and romantic skills to ensure that the marriage goes forward.

It's a given that Christopher is a shallow rat and a bit of a cypher, which means that his sex appeal to both women seems a bit of a plot problem. To add insult, neither Lenia or Margrethe are particularly appealing characters themselves. It's hard for a feminist to ignore Lenia's doormat, er character, while Margrethe -- who at least operates in a world where she understands that bigger things happen -- is also rather conniving in her insistence that she be the bride. In her defense, her solution to the dilemma of who Christopher will marry is clever if cruel, and I came away confident that the right person would be wearing the pants in the united kingdoms.

Where the book excels is when it vividly describes its natural world. Margrethe spends a large part of the novel swathed in furs because it is so darn cold and bleak where she lives. Lenia's ocean home is a place of darting fish (which often get popped in a mermaid's mouth when she's feeling a bit peckish), mysterious and cool. And when Linea comes ashore in Christopher's warm and sun-filled kingdom, she is astonished at the light. I experienced such a sense of place in the novel that I was almost willing to overlook the rather unpleasant people living there.

Rosalyn Landor reads the novel, which alternates its point-of-view between The Mermaid and The Princess. She has a relatively deep, resonant voice for a woman and she created two natural-sounding women for this novel. Lenia was a little more conventionally feminine (and for more than half of the novel, her voice is inside her head, of course), and Margrethe sounded more controlled and regal. Landor's men speak very far down her vocal register, and -- as a result, they all seem overly formal and deliberative.

Landor's narrative experience shows in her emotive line readings and the varying pace she sets as the story builds tension. But despite her formidable skills, I tend to avoid books that she's narrated. I hear an affected quality to her voice; much as I love those English accents, occasionally she's just teddibly, teddibly British. Often her voice is pitched so low (volume-wise) that it's hard to hear her and when you crank up the volume, she's got a painful sibilance. Even though she narrates a lot of books that I like to read, the last time I listened to her was nearly three years ago. Her reading here has not convinced me to seek out some of those books.

I think my all-time favorite fairy tale is East of the Sun and West of the Moon (another Scandinavian story), which I remember reading over and over again in my well-thumbed copy of Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book. It was the inspiration for Edith Pattou's terrific East (ooh! maybe I'll listen to it), and several other teen novels. But not for adults?

Blackstone Audio thoughtfully provided me a copy of Mermaid as part of the Solid Gold Reviewers program at Audiobook Jukebox. Thanks.

[Well, find a Wikimedia image and you learn all sorts of things. The image of the statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen Harbor is still under copyright, and thus shouldn't be in Wikimedia Commons. The heirs of sculptor Edvard Ericksen evidently try to keep a tight rein on the image (even though the Harbor statue is not the original). This photograph of the statue in 1913 was retrieved from the website maintained by the artist's granddaughter.]

Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale by Carolyn Turgeon
Narrated by Rosalyn Landor
Blackstone Audio, 2012. 8:00

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