By Michelle Tea
Whew, this is a good book. This is how good it is – I actually started reading slower at the end to stretch it out longer.
Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is basically my favorite kind of book: metaphorical fairytale. And it is a fairy tale, but kind of a grimy one, if that makes sense. Thirteen-year-old Sophie starts getting visions of a mermaid who tells her that she is destined to save the world. Sophie, however, is your average young teenager, cranky, stubborn, and self-centered, trying to figure out her place in the world and her relationship with the people around her. She lives with her overwhelmed single mother in the economically struggling city of Chelsea, MA, where everyone seems to be hanging on by a thread.
It truly is this real-ness where the book really shines. The titular mermaid just puts a mystical filter over the growth every teenager must go through, and how difficult it can be even if you don’t have a grand prophesy to fulfill. Even the various magical creatures are trying to find their places in a decreasingly magical world. The themes of how full of pain and anger and sadness the world is, and how easy it can be to give up in the face of it all, but also how important it is to fight it with kindness and understanding, in whatever small ways are available to you — well, those struck a cord with me right now.
The mermaid is the most fantastical character, for sure, but the pigeons are the best, which is why they are on the cover. I hate to even mention anything that might make someone hesitate to read this, but I do feel that I have to extend a couple of warnings: there is some animal harm, which is pretty devastating, of course, and the book ends on an utter and complete cliff hanger.
The one problem with metaphorical fairy tales, if it can even be considered a problem, is that with things like cliff hangers, you never know whether it means there will be a sequel or if it just serves to show that there are no true endings where everything gets wrapped up. I’m okay with that, actually, but I’m rooting for a sequel because I would love to read it. (Edited to add: there is a sequel – Girl at the Bottom of the Sea comes out next year!)
Incidentally, the hardcover edition is published by McSweeney’s, and is a gorgeous volume, with an embossed cover, thick paper, and lovely line illustrations.