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A mermaid tale with hidden depths

The Mermaid Call by Alex Cotter, Nosy Crow, July 2022

We were away at the seaside in Donegal last week and one of my holiday reads was The Mermaid Call by Alex Cotter. Last summer, I sat on the exact same beach in the grip of Alex's first book, The House at the Edge, and it was lovely to read her latest book in the same spot a year later! As exciting as I found The House at the Edge, I think I enjoyed The Mermaid Call even more.

I'm going to try and convey how good this is without giving too much away as it takes quite an unexpected turn and the surprise is all part of its spell. This is the story of Vivien who lives with her grandmother in a town called Lake Splendour that hides many secrets. Local legend has it that a mermaid lives in the lake and the town has built a tourist industry on this story. There's an annual Mermaid Crown beauty pageant which Vivien has mixed feelings about. She detests how sexist it is and what it stands for, especially as she doesn't fit the conventionally attractive mermaid mould. But she's also aware that she and her grandmother, who owns a souvenir shop called 'Enchanted Tails', depend on the Mermaid Crown, and the business it brings to the town, for their livelihood. Vivien doesn't believe in mermaids. Her glamorous and elusive mother Melusine occupies a mythical place in her life instead. Melusine left Lake Splendour long ago, casting the town off like an old skin, and Vivien with it. Vivien's former best friend Eleni seems to have abandoned Vivien too and taken up with another girl named Hero, who is campaigning to end the Mermaid Crown.

When a new girl called Alice arrives in town, she is as intriguing as Vivien's mother and is trying to learn more about her aunt Stella, who disappeared while searching for the lake's mermaid. Vivien is so eager to be liked that she embarks on an often dangerous mermaid hunt that threatens to take over her life and alienate everyone she cares about.

The Mermaid Call is an atmospheric thriller that weaves interesting and poignant aspects of history into the narrative. It's a story of betrayal that warns us about the dangers of putting people on pedestals and trying to be someone we're not. And it explores the complexities of female relationships, and the pain of being dropped by a friend, which can be difficult to navigate at any age.

Despite the beautiful setting of a little lakeshore town, it's incredibly eerie. Once you hear the siren call of 'Vivieeeeeen' coming from an unknown source in the distance, you are hooked! Vivien is an extremely relatable character. She has a lot of difficult choices to make and must make many of them alone. Vivien's big heart and fear of rejection makes her vulnerable, as does her desire to please those around her. But she ultimately never loses her integrity and she becomes more accepting of herself too. Vivien's grandmother Mimi is another wonderful protagonist and at times I really wanted to give her a big hug!

Unexpectedly for a story that relies heavily on mermaids, this is an unambiguously feminist text. The author encourages us to question why mermaids are always portrayed as looking a certain way and challenges the male gaze that has shaped them. It poses the powerful question, 'whose mirror are you looking in?' and encourages readers to disregard the opinions of others when evaluating their own self-worth. Most importantly, it celebrates individuality and inspires everyone to be their own mermaid. Read our interview with author Alex Cotter

The Mermaid Call was published by Nosy Crow on 7th July - see this book on the publisher's website Thanks so much to the lovely people in Nosy Crow for our review copy - all opinions expressed are our own.

Read our review of The House at the Edge by Alex Cotter