Thursday, September 23, 2010

Merrow, by Ananda Braxton-Smith

Published by Black Dog Books, 2010

Let me begin by saying that I just love Black Dog Books as a publisher: their attitude, their enthusiasm, the children’s and YA titles they produce. I first discovered Merrow whilst browsing their site, and knew straight away it had to go on my reading list; I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age story, but one possibly about a Merrow? That put me very much in the realm of The Little Mermaid, which is one of my favourite stories (book and film) ever. After reading it was also seeped in Manx folklore - another fascination of mine - I begun to have very high expectations.
Were they fulfilled? Yes. Ananda Braxton-Smith has written a charming little tale and I found it a delight to read from beginning to end.
What is a Merrow? If I have my Irish folklore correct – and I’m pretty sure I do, because as a teenager I very nearly cleared out the Celtic mythology section of the town library – it is the Irish equivalent of a mermaid. The females are beautiful, the males are not (!). They can also shape-shift between merrow, human and animal (mostly cattle) form by means of a red feather cap, sometimes a cape. Offspring of a marriage between a merrow and human will often be covered in scales.
This is the dilemma facing Neen: marked by her scales, she is both an outsider in the community and a young girl eager to reclaim the truth about her family and her self. This is what feeds the story and gives it an emotional brevity – we all want to know where we fit in the world.
And it is a wonderful  world Braxton-Smith creates. I love the way the characters speak; their vernacular, their quirks, and the stories they tell. I was familiar with many of the little folk tales that sprung up, courtesy of Ma Slevin, and it was great to see them getting page space. I love the relationship between Neen and Ushag and the way it develops. I love the way Neen views the world, and I love that the emotion here is raw and real and yet filtered through something distinctly otherworldly. I love the clash of the old and new worlds  and I love the way Merrow is so stubbornly unique.
Most of all I love the way Braxton-Smith uses words to evoke time and place and feeling. There are some very beautiful passages that make you feel the heat, the lethargy, of the summer, the movement of the ocean, or the sound of Scully’s fiddle as he plays deep into the night.
I loved this book. I think the best way I can describe it is imperfectly perfect.
"I looked upward and pictured how it might have been to sink forever into this dappling light; how its air would rise as the body sank, falling slowly, face to the sky, and all above just hair and bubbles."

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