The Mermaids Singing by Lisa Carey
Published 1999 by Penguin
My copy: Secondhand copy
In the 1950s, teenage Cliona leaves her home, a small island on the west coast of Ireland called Inis Muruch (the Island of Mermaids), and emigrates to America where she works as a maid for a Boston family. An unwanted pregnancy thwarts her career plans . Grace, Cliona’s daughter, grows up in America but returns to the island as a teenager, experiencing as much trauma in arriving on the isle as her mother did in leaving it. Rejecting her mother’s homeland, Grace returns to the U.S. with her own daughter, Grainne, and cuts all family ties. But patterns are repeated generationally like waves on each respective Atlantic shore, and the links with the past prove binding.
I knew nothing of this book when I picked it up on a whim in a charity shop and while I must admit I was almost put off by the mermaid thing, I’m glad I gave it a go!
We get three points of view in this novel – Clionna, her daughter Grace, and Grace’s daughter Grainne. The three women are all fiercely different – yet in some ways very similar. The book jumps around in time a bit and it does become confusing at times as their stories have many similarities, but this adds to the storyline as it highlights the way the three women are tied together in ways even they won’t admit.
I really like the three points of view the novel gives us as we get different perspectives on the same events. The three characters are all actually quite unlikeable in their own ways – Grainne we can forgive as she is just a teenager in the novel and has had a very unconventional upbringing, but Grace and Clionna are both hard characters to like for different reasons. Clionna is cold and practical – but for reasons we find out as the book progresses – and Grace goes out of her way to be everything her mother wasn’t.
The contrasting settings of Boston and Ireland really add something to this book, and I loved the descriptions of the isolated island and its inhabitants. The language of the book is rich and lyrical, and although the novel very much focuses on the three female characters, the men around them are also very significant and add much of importance to the story.
I very much enjoyed this novel, and I liked finding out about the characters’ secrets and what is was that made them tick. Even though they weren’t always likeable, I found that I understood them as the novel progressed. I didn’t mind the slightly confusing structure, and even the more mythical elements which I wasn’t particularly looking forward to undoubtedly added something to the novel and were never overdone.
My rating: 8 out of 10