BookBrowse Reviews Merrow by Ananda Braxton-Smith

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Merrow by Ananda Braxton-Smith X
Merrow by Ananda Braxton-Smith
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  • Published:
    Nov 2016, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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About this Book



In this breathless and beautifully crafted tale, twelve-year-old Neen Marrey must separate town gossip from town lore to learn the truth about her mother - and herself.

Full confession: I'm not usually a big fan of mermaid stories. The Little Mermaid notwithstanding, I often find their mood a little too gauzy, their heroines a little too self-sacrificing for my taste. So I approached the young adult novel Merrow with some hesitation, figuring that its unusual setting and basis in historical reality might help offset any stereotypical mermaid-ness.

I'm happy to say that Merrow – which was published several years ago in the UK and the author's native Australia, and is now fortunately available in the US as well – was a pleasant surprise. Set on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, right around the year 1000, the novel is suffused with Irish folklore, and the rich and peculiar customs and language of a people long isolated from the rest of the world.

Twelve-year-old Neen Marrey has become quite an outsider ever since the death of her father and the subsequent disappearance of her beautiful, free-spirited mother. She has been raised by her earnest, no-nonsense Auntie Ushag, who values work far more than she entertains flights of fancy. For that, Neen must go to see Ma Slevin and her son, the blind seer Scully, who tell her tales of changelings, selkies, and merrows (the Irish word for mermaid). The merrows in Ma Slevin's tales, however, are hardly the delicate mermaids of more modern imaginations – these creatures are mysterious and somehow menacing, powerful in their disregard for human concerns.

Neen has always wondered if her mother's free spiritedness, impetuousness, and ultimate disappearance – not to mention Ma Slevin's tales of merrow blood running deep through the Marrey family – are signs that her mother transformed into her true merrow self rather than committing suicide. Auntie Ushag is skeptical at best and downright dismissive the rest of the time. But when Neen seems to find real-life evidence of merrows in their own backyard, she may have found a way to help her aunt rediscover hope and even joy.

Neen's journey – in which fact and fiction interweave and folklore feels like a living thing – plays out against an historical backdrop that is wrestling with many of the same collisions and intersections of old and new ways of thinking. Missionaries have converted the residents of the Isle of Man to Christianity, but many of the old ways persist despite the priests' and monks' best efforts. Meanwhile, Neen and Ushag open their home to an unexpected visitor from the north who may offer yet another perspective, and a chance for a new beginning.

Although some readers may relish the folklore that infuses the novel, others may grow impatient with the slow pacing that results from the numerous stories within the main story. In the end, Neen's narrative suggests that the tales that sustain us and give us hope, the ones that are most powerful and important, might not always be the ones that are objectively true: "If I didn't make my own story, there were plenty to do it for me. Some would do it kindly, others any way they could, but I knew now I wouldn't like it. What I needed was a new story, the right story to say what I knew about Mam; I needed a story in which both lies and facts could turn to truth in my throat." Merrow isn't just a mermaid story; it's a novel about the importance of stories to make sense of our own and others' lives.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review first ran in the February 15, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  Vikings on the Isle of Man


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