The little mermaid is all grown up and several generations removed from the sea in Ann Claycomb’s debut novel, The Mermaid’s Daughter, a modern take on the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale. Here at Fiction Unbound, we love the chance to dive into fairy tale reimaginings and female-driven narratives and that’s exactly what we got with Claycomb’s new novel. Kathleen, the unlucky descendant of the cursed mermaid from Anderson’s story, is an opera student with a bright future. That is if only the terrible pains in her feet and mouth would go away and she could stop longing to be immersed in salt water. Claycomb’s story is both an extension of the grim Andersen tale and a bold, mature examination of the repercussions of giving up one’s self for love. Harry (short for Harriet), is Kathleen’s girlfriend and bonafide True Love. Refreshingly, this is as much Harry’s story as it is Kathleen’s, with the novel giving equal turn in voice to Harry, Kathleen, and Kathleen’s father, Robin. This structure allows readers a glimpse into the full impact of the curse’s legacy on the hapless bystanders in the mermaid and her descendants’ lives. When Kathleen and Harry are on vacation in Florida, Kathleen literally hears the call to return “home,” leading both herself and Harry down a path toward the truth from which there’s no coming back.
Amanda Boldenow: The book reminded me more of a “Where Are They Now?” episode (remember VH1?) than the traditional version of Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Rather than retelling the mermaid’s story, we get the story of her great-great-great-great (great?) granddaughter, Kathleen. She is living in the present day with the lingering effects of the mermaid’s original curse: the pain of growing legs and having her tongue cut out (even though Kathleen’s tongue is very much present).
Danyelle C. Overbo: Yes, in fact Claycomb cleverly incorporates Andersen himself into the tale via a short story at the end of the novel. Our main character, Kathleen, suffers from the pain in her feet and pain in her tongue, only finding relief when she is in water, especially sea water. Every woman in her family has killed herself before hitting 25, except the original mermaid, Fand, who lived to be 40. Part of the mystery in the novel is why Fand lived longer than her descendants in spite of the pain and heartbreak she’d experienced.
AB: I liked the mini-story at the end that gave us Fand’s post-prince and pre-foam-dissolution ending. It felt like a prologue rather than a bonus story, showing us the full circle of how Fand lost her voice, and ultimately found it through her great (etc) granddaughter, Kathleen, who carried on Fand’s love of opera. Like a good dramatic opera, Claycomb uses a lot of symbolism with names, dubbing Kathleen’s father, an opera composer and man-who-fell-in-love-with-a-fish-woman, “Robin.” Not only is he musical, he reminds us of the age-old conundrum of a bird loving a fish with no neutral ground to live on. Kathleen’s mother, ill-fated thanks to the lingering curse, was “Moira,” an Irish version of “star of the sea.”
DCO: I liked the names, though is was difficult to pronounce them in my head. One of the women in the cursed lineage, that we get to learn about through an interweaving narrative from the sea witches, is Caolinn. I was shocked when (from Harry’s POV) I learned it was pronounced like “Colleen.”
AB: I went through the whole book saying “Cow-lynn” in my head before that revelation. Speaking of revelations, Kathleen’s major revelation comes with finally discovering that her chronic pain is not something doctors will ever be able to cure, because it stems from being a mermaid removed from the sea. A major theme of the book is home and home-going. Kathleen first hears the sea witches calling her with the words “come home,” and that starts her trajectory toward both going home physically: first to her father’s house as he composes the opera Little Mermaid with Harry, and then home to Ireland, where both she and her parents were born.
DCO: Yes, the entire curse revolves around the fact that the mermaid’s body just wants to be part of the sea again - hence the pain in her feet and desperate longing to be in water. Doesn’t really explain why she would feel the lingering pain of her ancestor's missing tongue. Just seems a bit much, that.
AB: If we poke at that pain with the theme stick, we could explore the historical precedent of silencing women, the pain of speaking out, etc. There are a lot of themes in the book worth unpacking. Others include madness, suicide, dismissing female pain/not recognizing or treating it (leading to the deaths of all the women in Kathleen’s family), loss, father-daughter relationships, sacrifice.
DCO: Doctors dismissing female pain is relevant today and I wish there had been more of that in the book. I feel like there was a lot of secrecy from all the women before Kathleen. No one who cared about them actually knew they were in pain. Then, Kathleen comes along, and there is a major scene after she has a psychotic break where the doctors actually do believe her. I was pretty surprised by that. They suggest she go through electroshock therapy, which the characters are totally aghast about, but in real life, has done a lot of people good.
AB: There’s definitely a vibe of stigma around mental illness, which was one of the original concerns that Kathleen was dealing with. I think the fear of electroshock therapy plays into that. This story does a lot to break traditional stigmas, though. It’s an LGBTQ+ love story, and Kathleen’s “prince” is actually a ringleted princess,Harriet. Harry proves instrumental in “saving” Kathleen, both from the curse and herself.
DCO: This is one of the things I especially liked about the book. Harry is the true heroine of this novel, and, frankly, also a more likable character than Kathleen in many ways.
*Warning, spoilers follow*
AB: Kathleen was a bit of a diva to take throughout the book. Harry made her likable by keeping her grounded. Robin, too. It was nice to see a parent be critical to “saving” the heroine, rather than being absent through death or willful absentia. He was all in for figuring out how to break the curse. He fully grasped the pain of loss, helping him connect with Kathleen. When composing an opera with Harry and Kathleen as singers in mind, he said “But here a harp might serve two purposes: to emphasize with occasional ripping, lush scales the ascetic texture of Harry’s voice, and to suggest a loss of something idyllic.” A major theme of the book is the loss of something idyllic - what the original little mermaid, Fand, gave up. She left the life of undersea royalty for the prince with whom she’d fallen in love.
DCO: That is very present in the structure too - an operatic flow. Harry and Robin end up writing Kathleen an opera and it’s almost like they are undoing that loss of the idyllic. But, theme-wise, I think my favorite aspect of this whole story was the acknowledgement of how the male characters have taken advantage of the female characters throughout this ancestral line. Even Robin, this fantastic father and genuinely good man, admits to having felt a primal lust for Kathleen’s mother, over and above his sense of protection of her. He, like the prince and the other men (and women) through time, loved his wife intensely, but didn’t or couldn’t see through his own passion for her to the actual pain she was experiencing.
AB: That’s true, and we see it again when Anderson rejects Fand in the short story. My problem with the ending is how willingly Kathleen gives up her father and her girlfriend, the two loves of her life. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been in prolonged physical pain (thanks, epidural) that I don’t fully grasp how one could so willingly give up those they love so much? I also think it was a bit cruel of her to send dreams of herself to them. If I was her dad, I would have wanted an annual time and meeting place. Like, County Cork, summer solstice, be there or be square.
DCO: The story never explains why Kathleen can’t just come and visit. There is no reason she has to simply give up everything she had on land when she becomes a mermaid. The biggest issue I had throughout the book was that Kathleen seemed like such an unlikeable character. To me at least, I liked Harry and Robin a lot more, even given the sympathy I should have felt for Kathleen because of her constant pain. She was spoiled (of course, what father wouldn’t spoil a child in so much pain?), but it was more than that. Everyone around her had to cater to her every whim. Then, she becomes a mermaid in the end and she lets everything in her previous life fade away. We do get the great scene at the end where she finally confronts these sea witches face-to-face. That scene, interestingly, was where I actually felt the most connected to Kathleen. In my mind, the dreams were her way of assuring her loved ones that they did the right thing, that she was happy, and that it was okay if they move on with their lives without her.
Overall, The Mermaid’s Daughter was a great addition to the mythology of The Little Mermaid, delving into avenues not typically explored with these characters and breathing beautiful life into the narrative via operatic language and framework. Anyone who loves mermaids as much as we do or any reader who likes their fantasy grounded with a little reality will enjoy the read.