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The Mermaid’s Child, by Jo Baker.

December 3, 2014

The Mermaid’s Child, by Jo Baker. Vintage (2015), Paperback, 288 pages.


A whimsical story packed with both adventure and poetic descriptions about a young woman’s quest to find her mother who, she is told, was a mermaid.

Perhaps this is speculative fiction. Or maybe it really could have happened. Either way, Jo Baker has written a book that I find to be unique. Rich details reveal sights, sounds, and smells without slowing down the fast-paced action. Malin, the book’s hero/heroine and narrator, is a woman who leaves home to search for her mother and her true community. She is an androgynous figure; at times, totally a woman, and at other times, implausibly, she convinces those around her that she is a young man.  Starting from a desolate inland village, she follows a handsome stranger and joins the crew of slave ship. After a lesbian interlude, she refurbishes a ship, and gets captured and sold as a slave. She crosses a desert, and joins a circus—crossing land and sea in search of her illusive mother. I am ambivalent about the ending, but the book is such fun it hardly matters.

As I read The Mermaid’s Child, I was reminded of Writing a Woman’s Life, by Carolyn Heilburn, written in the 1980s. At that time she said that books by men generally followed a Quest plot, and those by women were typically Romances.  She suggested that women as well as men needed books with Quest plots. In the decades since Heilburn wrote, books by and about women have blossomed in a wonderful variety of directions. What Baker has done is take a familiar Quest plot and adapted it appropriately for a woman. I love what she has achieved.

Baker is an English woman, now living in Ireland. I had seen reviews but not read her recent book, Longbourn, about life among the servants who provide the daily labor for the Bennets in Jane Austen’s masterpiece. Now I am ready to look harder for it. I hope that it is written in the same wonderful style as this novel.

I warmly recommend this book to all who simply enjoy a well-told story that blurs the distinctions that we usually make about quests. Although I read it as an ebook to be released next March, it seems to have been previously published, perhaps in England.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Vintage for providing me with this book as an ebook.

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