A Song Below Water, Bethany C. Morrow (Tor Teen 978-1-250-31532-8, $17.99, 288pp, hc) June 2020.
Bethany Morrow’s A Song Below Water is a difficult novel to sum up in a few words. (Scratch that – it’s impossible to sum up in a few words.) On one level, it is very much a story of sirens and mermaids (and gargoyles, elokos, and pixies) and a version of America that both recognizes and acknowledges the existence of such mythic creatures. More significantly, it is the story of two young Black women and the efforts of an America remarkably like our own to silence, trample, and even casually destroy them. In a split narrative, one teenager trains to be a mermaid while another struggles to control her magical voice. Reality intrudes more than once, such as when one of the teens is presented with a white classmate’s utterly inappropriate comments concerning her hair and another must pull her car over to the side of the road, terrified, as two police officers approach. How the many different plot points come together, along with a startling family mystery, a terrifying nightmare from the past, and bullying that goes way too far, is what makes A Song Below Water a book of the highest literary quality that stands far above others in the field.
First, there are Tavia and Euphemia (”Effie”), best friends living as sisters and navigating the halls of high school with no small amount of trepidation. Tavia has a dangerous secret. Born a siren, she must hide her powerful voice or face the sentencing of a literal collar around her throat, which would control her ability to speak and, according to authorities, the threat it presents to compel others. The burning in her throat and stress to deny herself drove Tavia to self-harm years earlier. Now, with her protective and somewhat paranoid parents, she tries to pass as an average teenage girl and not someone who possesses what is exclusively Black Girl Magic. The problem is that she is desperate to reach her siren grandmother who, according to legend, should be able to contact her through a body of water. So Tavia gets her feet wet in pools and rivers and calls for help, uncertain what she will do if she is answered.
Effie is running from a horrific childhood tragedy which left several of her friends frozen in stone. Raised by foster grandparents until she was sent, for unclear reasons, to Tavia’s family, Effie is a swimmer who lives for the few weeks every year when she performs as a mermaid at a local Renaissance Faire. Preoccupied by her mother’s death, her unknown father, the mystery of what happened to her childhood friends, and her worsening skin condition, Effie feels constantly on the edge. There is something wrong; there are, in fact, many things wrong. Lately she is beginning to think she might really be a mermaid, but what that will mean no one knows, other than the fact that being a Black girl who is different, who stands out, is never a good thing.
There’s also a gargoyle perched on the roof of their house to, apparently, protect Tavia. No one is sure what to make of the gargoyle, even after he and Tavia tentatively begin a friendship. I will say, for the record, that the gargoyle is incredibly cool.
The spark that sets the narrative on fire is the distant murder of a young unrelated woman named Rhoda Taylor at the hands of her boyfriend. For no reason at all, and with nothing more than nasty insinuation to drive the defense’s assertion, Rhoda is painted in the courtroom, and then by the media, as a siren who exerted her power over the accused thus forcing him to kill her in self-defense. As the country turns on Rhoda, based on little more than innuendo and the fact that she was a Black woman and all sirens are Black women, Tavia feels more and more under siege. When a popular online personality outs herself as a siren and inspires others to take to the streets at a protest for Rhoda and a young Black man’s recent murder, Tavia is determined to join in. At the same time, Effie finds herself becoming overcome by memories, and her physical condition worsens. Both girls are thus drawn along by events over which they seem to have only the slightest bit of control. Then the plot explodes in a crush of events that finds lives threatened, truths revealed, and a lot of power unleashed. Two Black girls (and one gargoyle) stand up for each other and yes, you will want to cheer.
But. In as much as A Song Below Water is thrilling and intense and utilizes truly gorgeous language, I found it to also be a tender and somewhat wistful novel. I wish that Tavia and Effie did not have to suffer so much, I wish they didn’t feel so alone, and I wish they were not so casually and frequently wronged. There is a happy ending here but it’s so damn hard to get to. Bethany Morrow clearly wants to give readers something to think about, but the fact that she succeeds so well likely says a lot more about us than the world she created.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the July 2020 issue of Locus.
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