Stories about mermaids emerged from our collective unconscious, are thousands of years old and found globally. Contrary to Disney’s cute film about bikini-clad, red-haired Ariel, these myths and tales are mostly quite grim.
They have several tropes in common: the mermaid has often been cursed or can curse and lure others (sailors, princes, pirates) to their fate. Mermaids often sing and have a sweet voice or an enviable talent that provokes jealousy in other women.
My novel The Mermaid of Black Conch embodies some of these archetypes; the title character is cursed by other women and yes, she has a sweet singing voice. But the book is a feminist rewrite of an old Taino myth. With her sexuality sealed up inside her tail, Aycayia, a young indigenous woman, is caught by Americans during a fishing competition, rescued, and in the end beats her curse by claiming her erotic rite of passage. She changes those she meets, too. Here are some of the mermaid books I’ve admired and been inspired by while writing my own story.
1. Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox
A gothic mystery about a young woman called Pearl brought up in a brothel called The House of Mermaids. Pearl has a small deformity. But is she a mermaid? You’ll have to read on. This is an eerie Victorian tale touching on themes of sexuality, pornography and child exploitation; it’s richly plotted, with a killer twist. Fox is a fine writer of historical fiction; the traditional faces of the mermaid (outsider, shape-shifter, siren, madwoman) come alive in her hands, Fox writing like the lovechild of Sarah Waters and Angela Carter.
2. The Deep by Rivers Solomon
A novella based on a rap song of the same name, this is an Africanised take on the eponymous mermaid. Pregnant women who were thrown overboard during the middle passage have given birth in the depths of the ocean and their offspring live safely in communities under the sea. Only Yetu, a historian, holds the painful memories of her people and swims to the surface to reclaim them. Once back on land, she faces a terrible truth, her people’s past. This book recently won a Lambda literary award and is already a contemporary African American speculative fiction classic.
3. Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué
A 19th-century German novella based on the French myth of Melusine, a half-serpent river maiden who marries a French nobleman on condition he never looks upon her while she’s in the bath. Undine, written by a French nobleman, crafts a different story; here the heroine marries a knight and only later reveals she isn’t all human. Later, he falls in love with another woman and Undine punishes his infidelity with a kiss that kills him.
4. The Pisces: A Novel by Melissa Broder
There are few contemporary mermaid tales in American literature. Too much Disney and Tom Hanks in the mix have, in the past, over-cutesyfied the mostly sombre genre. I really like this book, mostly because the leading merperson is male. This is a love story and a sexy one, between lovelorn Lucy and the hunky, slippery Theo, whose “tail starts below his dick”. Lucy, getting over a breakup, lives in Venice Beach, California, and tries to reset her life on the abyss of Tinder. Really, this is a tale about 21st-century ennui; read it for the fishy sex scenes.
5. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower
Written by a debut writer, this is the real deal mermaid mystery – the hybrid creature captured and living a melancholy existence as some man’s love object. It’s a love story, fish story and rollicking historical drama all rolled into one, set in Georgian England. Buy it for the gorgeous language and descriptions of the tragically doubly entrapped fish-woman herself. Probably my favourite book on the list.
6. The Sea Lady by HG Wells
This is one of Wells’s lesser-known novels but one of his best. A fantasy romance, as so many mermaid tales are, in which Miss Doris Thalassia Waters, a mermaid come ashore, has designs on a ne’er-do-well gent betrothed to someone else. This doesn’t stop her and when Chatteris succumbs, he is doomed and dies. Also a social satire, The Sea Lady explores serious themes of nature, sex, the imagination, and the ideal in an Edwardian world in which moral restraints are loosening. Here, the mermaid is seductress and messenger.
7. The Mermaid Wakes by Canute Caliste and Lola Berg
Caliste, an artist from the Caribbean island of Carriacou, swore he’d seen mermaids and often painted them. This picture book was essential research for my novel. Mermaid art is everywhere in the Caribbean, but Caliste’s mermaids are perhaps the most celebrated. A collection of 22 mermaid paintings, there’s a loose mermaid narrative too, by Berg. A must-have for anyone interested in Caribbean art and mermaid lore.
8. The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
This very grim Danish fable has been seriously mucked about by Disney. In the original, the young mermaid falls in love with a prince she rescues from a sinking ship. Hoping to meet him on land, she does a deal with the sea witch and agrees to chop out her tongue and give the witch her voice in exchange for human legs. Of course, this is a rather poor deal. She gets her legs, meets the prince, but she cannot talk and so the prince treats her like a mute pet. In the end, he marries someone else. The little mermaid ends up an air sprite. It’s a weird story, the moral of which is be yourself.
9. The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N McIntyre
In 1997 this sci-fi novel beat A Game of Thrones to a Nebula award. It has since been made into a film (as The King’s Daughter). Set in 17th-century France, in the court of the Sun King, a “sea monster” is caught who turns out to be a woman, and is also an intelligent and sentient being. Yet again, we see the feminism in the mermaid story, as men gang up to keep her, or eat her, and women try to free her. Eventually, she is freed and shows her human friends where a vast hoard of sunken treasure is hidden. Think mermaid story mates with Ursula K Le Guin. Kind of brilliant.
10. Ingo by Helen Dunmore
Inspired by Cornwall’s Mermaid of Zennor, this is the first of a series of four YA books. Ingo is an undersea world and Sapphire, a young girl whose father has mysteriously gone missing, is lured there by a proud merman called Faro. Faro shows her his undersea city and people and she learns to breathe underwater. When she returns, she’s been gone for two days and is then forever craves salt and hears her name called by the sea. Later, she and her friend Conor save some divers from going too close to the Ingo sacred burial grounds. The fable of the mermaid crossed with a kind of Famous Five adventure.
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press) is nominated for the Costa novel of the year award, which will be announced on 4 January. To order a copy of the book, go to guardianbookshop.com.