Title: The Mermaid’s Sister
Author: Carrie Anne Noble
Length: 234 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Clara has lived her entire life in a small cottage on Llanfair Mountain with her adopted mother and sister. They’ve grown up with stories of how their Auntie found them as babies: Clara brought by a stork and Maren left on the doorstep in a clamshell. When the girls turn sixteen, however, the stories become all too real for Clara as her sister changes before her eyes. Scales appear on Maren’s stomach, her fingers and toes grow webbed, and she is soon unable to live out of some kind of water. With heavy hearts, Clara, Maren, and their lifelong friend O’Neill eventually embark on a journey to the ocean. Yet after their wagon is sabotaged and they are kidnapped, they find themselves fighting for their very lives.
Hallelujah, it’s the first novel I loved in 2017!
Some great characters lie at the heart of this (bitter)sweet story. The titular heroine, Clara, is sympathetic and sensible, selfless and brave. She’s also stubborn to a fault, easy to read, and struggles with jealousy and, above all, the grief of losing her sister. Her sister Maren is undergoing a slow, relentless transformation from a slightly wild young girl into something entirely inhuman. Like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, she’s almost more of an idea–a force, even–than a character, though she is always physically present. Because it’s Clara’s story more than Maren’s, though, that never really bothered me. And their “almost-brother” O’Neill, is very likable: warm, jovial, and optimistic against even the worst odds, he cares a great deal about both girls. The rest of the cast is plenty memorable, too, though some characters are sketched better than others. (My personal favorite supporting character was probably Auntie’s pet dragon Osbert.)
But there is, indeed, a story here as well: an enchanting, suspenseful, heart-wrenching story. Fantasy, adventure, romance, coming-of-age…they’re all here in equal measure, though the book rarely feels either overstuffed or forced despite its brevity. In a few places, it does drag, but I so loved the characters and the writing that I didn’t mind.
I never felt certain that said story would have a happy ending, either. In fact, the nature of the overarching plot–Clara and O’Neill’s fraught journey to return Maren to the sea–means that a truly happy ending is impossible. Clara must lose her beloved sister no matter what else happens, either to a slow and painful death or to her aquatic home.
Carrie Anne Noble’s writing is excellent as well, neither too flowery nor too plain. It’s perfect for nearly any reading level, from preteens on up. And while the plot itself gets off the ground a bit slowly, that only serves to get readers further attached to Clara and Maren and their special, tragic bond–at least that’s what it did for me. Even as the latter loses her voice, her modesty, and her very humanity and as the former fights to save her before she shrivels away to nothing, the flighty mermaid still blows her sister kisses through the glass of her saltwater jar. The romance, which does involve a bit of a love triangle and which I found the weakest element of the book albeit a sweet one, can’t hold a candle to the love and devotion shared between the sisters.
Somewhere inside this enchanting splendor, my sister still lives. The one who has heard my secrets and seen my midnight tears. The one who can name every scar on my body (and who caused a few of them herself). The one who has been with me since my first October, who has loved me as I have loved her. We meant to grow old together; we made promises for the future that will not be kept. (105)
I press my hand against the glass. “Good-bye, sister,” I say.
Maren stops swimming and places her hand in line with mine. From each of her sea-colored eyes falls a single pearl tear. (144)
The entire emphasis on familial relationships and the treatment of adoptive families as being as important and as “real” (which they of course are) as biological ones, in fact, is all-around wonderful. By the end, I had tears in my eyes–more than once!
The author also constructs the fantasy of her novel beautifully. It reads as organic and believable; neither the characters nor the readers doubt that Auntie has faerie blood or that O’Neill can speak to animals. I also loved her creative little details, like Maren craving the taste of salt from an early age and shrinking in size the longer she goes without returning to the ocean. Everything comes together to form an unique, eccentric yet cohesive fantasy world.
Some great characters with fascinating backstories and strong relationships, a tense and emotional plot, strong writing, and intriguing fantasy elements all combine to make The Mermaid’s Sister something quite special, albeit flawed. (Ironically, I’d decided against putting this one on my TBR list earlier this year based on the description and a handful of reviews but boy, I’m glad I chose to check it out from the library on a whim.) This is truly a little pearl of a book whose last page made me wish for more.