I am not a book reviewer per se, though I read reviews myself, but I find I must write about the book I have just finished: Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox. I was astonished by it and it has taken on a special significance for me. Is this what happens when you find books you love – does it speak especially to you? My language and ideas are now steeped in Elijah’s Mermaid. It feels like the novel is in my bloodstream, affecting my brain. For me, her book is about how the narratives (sometimes myths) woven about us and those we weave ourselves, become who we are. If I was book reviewer, I would explain why the book was so good but I need to do something different here. I want to convey how I feel now, having been inside the house of this book, soaking up its atmosphere and walking around its spaces, rather than analyse the intricacy of the ceiling rose or the objets d’art.
This is how I felt when I made my choice between studying History or English Literature at university. My love of literature made me shy away from conducting anatomical investigations on it. I was interested in dissecting it but this seemed at odds with my passion for it. After an English Comprehension lesson which stimulated me intellectually, I felt a little empty afterwards: like looking at a flower after pulling the petals of it – the wholeness of the effect – the beauty – was gone as I looked at the stalk and the petals separated. And yet, how I remember the poems, plays and novels we analysed. They are imprinted in my mind, my appreciation constant.
So I think now that this emptiness revealed a fault line in my psyche (that cracked open much later.) I associated myself with the poem we dissected. What was dear to me about myself I did not want to be held up and scrutinised. I wanted to be accepted as I was, not to lay the elements of myself out for examination, which seemed impossible as I grew up. School, exams – everything was a test I had to pass which I feared failing – I needed something that could just be. I remember thinking that the writers of the poems might agree with me – how would they feel about their poems being broken into their constituents? And yet there is so much for a writer to learn from doing that and I have been annoyed with myself for not choosing to study English Literature at university.
Choosing history confused my career decisions and pushed anything to do with creative writing far from the realm I recognised as possible. The more advanced my studies became, the more the focus on facts, facts, facts. Charles Dickens Hard Times springs to mind. I finally quit my Phd in History, leaving it unfinished which was anathema to me – to leave something unfinished and disappointing people’s expectations. But it was also a release, I was facing letting people down and finding that they only cared for such a short time. If I had kept pleasing, then I would have been doing something I no longer liked for years continuing my depression rather than fighting it.
Finally in my forties, after feeling confused about what career to follow, it occurred to me that I wanted a job in fiction publishing – that this would link my private love, my need to make money and give me connections that might help my own writing aspirations. It seemed too late, my CV too erratic and unrelated, but it was n’t – once I listened to my inner muse and ignored my fear of rejection, opportunities developed and from them further ones grew.
To my surprise, as I pursued my love of creative writing, I rediscovered my pleasure in history. The past has become my paintbox, a more vivid and freer palette for my imagination than I think I would have had if I had stuck to contemporary time. I remember reading Possession by A.S.Byatt in my twenties. I swooned as it time-travelled the reader from the present to the nineteenth century, how Byatt had written exquisite poems (that are utterly convincing as poems written by the nineteenth century characters) which are integral to the plot – poetry and literature married together – I did not have to choose which I loved best.
And so we come to Elijah’s Mermaid, which for me now sits with Possession on a plinth of equal height – maybe even slightly higher. I expect I am not alone in rarely finding books I completely love – many years may pass before I find another. It is the same with theatre: the reader and the audience interact with an incredible performance that makes that moment frozen in time and never forgotten.
Thank you Essie Fox. Thank you for your hard work. I can only imagine the many hours, days, years it took to create Elijah’s Mermaid. It is so well crafted I did not see the joins. I think of your book like an irreplaceable antique – Chippendale’s furniture for example, made with such craft and balance that people will always admire it, no matter what time they come from or whatever the current fashion. Elijah’s Mermaid is a classic to me.
Why is it I love your book so much when what happens is so wrong and disturbing? For a few moments here and there, I almost stopped reading because it is hard subject matter for a parent. But you wrote so well, conveyed such beauty in the darkness and I had to read on, I had to hope that all would be well in the end. And when it ended, you did not cheat me with a trite ending. You show how what happens does not leave us, but then we go on to make things better.
Elijah’s Mermaid is what I feel great art should be: aesthetically perfect but also impassioned and imparting the truth to us no matter how terrible it is. I think the book is the perfect union of literature and history – the qualities of both combined to made the headiest brew. I have never wanted to take psychedelic drugs, interested though I am in the concept that you might see a different world while under their influence. With my personality, I know I would be an addict in no time, so I do not go there. But this is safe, this journey into Elijah’s Mermaid. I urge you to try it.
P.S. Thank you Caroline (who I have known since I was five) who saw Elijah’s Mermaid and thought of me.
Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox is published by Orion Books