The pursuit of perfection is a tried and true literary topic. Summer knows she came to ballroom dance too late to be a professional ballroom dancer; nevertheless, she attends eight hours of classes a week striving towards excellence and the notice of her teachers — notably Donny, with whom she strikes up an uneasy, perhaps unequal, friendship and confidence outside of the studio. Nevertheless, ballroom dancing is not something one can do alone, and Summer knows she must find a partner very, very quickly to go as far as she can. For a woman whose past experiences of intimacy have left scars — verbal abuse in the family home, physical abuse in relationships — this feels like a process of finding your land legs again. Thus, The Mermaid’s Tale finds its theme and imagery, weaving moments of imagination into a tale of grit.
Lee Wei-Jing, who passed away from cancer in 2018, previously chose Darryl Sterk to translate her earlier novel. With the blessing of her estate, Sterk translated this novel as well, explaining in the introduction his process and resources when choosing corresponding English imagery and similes. The result is a highly readable, straightforwardly told novel.
While coming in just under 200 pages, The Mermaid’s Tale feels more expansive due to its deliberate pace and the collection of anecdotes weaving through a roughly chronological narration. Dipping in and out of these vignettes from Summer’s early life and the stories her friends tell her adds unexpected depth and habitation. This story feels lived rather than narrated; even describing the complicated dance steps has the cadence of a passionate conversation with the reader as the eager listener.
The impermanence of these moments sometimes feel like lost threads and dead ends, but the missed chances add verisimilitude. Summer’s life is fully observed, if not fully lived, and these small occurrences build a larger picture where the absences, mysteries, small victories, and little cruelties and bothers of changed plans come organically to the fore.
The Mermaid’s Tale captures, with stunning directness and honesty, the everyday anxiety over even the pettiest interactions with men — an anxiety that can not only sour burgeoning romances before they have a chance to blossom but can pervade all aspects of learning, growing, and finding a path in the world. Competitive ballroom dancing, both at amateur and professional levels, keeps its partners at close quarters, and the fear of casual intimacy and sexuality are remarkably represented. This frank assessment feels revolutionary, capturing the pain of navigating power and sex when both are taken for granted by the (usually male) side in this most heteronormative art form.
The Mermaid’s Tale, however, stops short of full emotional involvement or progressive portrayals of gender. Summer is a difficult narrator, and it is hard to tell if this is partly an issue of translation or rather the way she jumps between moods and moments with little connection or explanation. Extreme self-confidence bursts through an almost incapacitating avoidance of the world, and Summer’s astute gaze is often turned more harshly on the two-dimensional others in her sphere than it is on her own self (here, her gaze is critical and riddled with learned loathing, but warmly dismantles this view as the novel goes on).
It is tremendously difficult to get past a virulent display of transphobia in the first three pages, one that then evolves to paint the subject as a sex pest and ‘deviant’, especially in an era of heightened violence and bigotry against trans and gender nonconforming individuals in the UK and around the world. Summer’s bigotries may be her own — she is a flawed heroine, even when troublingly unchallenged, and the deceased author cannot add additional light to these statements. That said, the protagonist’s lack of all but superficial reflection and the supremacy of her perspective in the narrative (only once does she and Lee Wei-Jing allow another gender nonconforming character a moment of humanity, or at least Summer-approved passing) sours the entire rest of the book. If Summer has suffered so much at the hands of the patriarchy and feels constrained by her gender, surely reacting with disgust to a (probably) transitioning individual plays straight into the hands of her own abusers? And when this leads nowhere in the narrative, is the hate justified?
The Mermaid’s Tale contains moments that will stick with readers, but not always for the right reasons. Its fundamental lack of nuance, compassion, and exploration for anyone except its central figure — and even then in negligible moments — make it a difficult read. When it finds small moments of magic and truth, however, the novel comes into its own on solid land.
The Mermaid’s Tale is available in UK bookshops. You can find a seller through Simon & Schuster.
Words by Carmen Paddock
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