Everyone in the broken-down town of Chelsea, Massachusetts, has a story too worn to repeat—from the girls who play the pass-out game just to feel like they're somewhere else, to the packs of aimless teenage boys, to the old women from far away who left everything behind. But there’s one story they all still tell: the oldest and saddest but most hopeful story, the one about the girl who will be able to take their twisted world and straighten it out. The girl who will bring the magic.
Could Sophie Swankowski be that girl? With her tangled hair and grubby clothes, her weird habits and her visions of a filthy, swearing mermaid who comes to her when she’s unconscious, Sophie could be the one to uncover the power flowing beneath Chelsea’s potholed streets and sludge-filled rivers, and the one to fight the evil that flows there, too. Sophie might discover her destiny, and maybe even in time to save them all. (blurb from Goodreads)
Rating: PG, 4 1/2 stars
Trigger Warnings: OCD/Compulsions, alcoholism, animal death, neglectful parents, bullying
I’m not going to lie: this was a fairly dark book. It was gritty; it was dirty (and I don’t mean smutty; I mean there was a lot of dirt in the book). But for all of that, I found it surprisingly hopeful, and not just in the sense that it ended on a hopeful note. What I mean is that this book gave me hope for the future of humankind.
Despite the magical realism present in Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, I felt that Sophie’s destiny really resonated with a lot of things that are actually happening in the world today. Sophie’s job is to, in a manner of speaking, rid the humanity of its darkness, of the sorrow and hatred and violence. Reading that, I thought of the bees that are dying from the use of pesticides and fungicides, America’s problem with gun violence, the violent revolutions currently taking place in South America and the Middle East. For some reason, the idea of an almost-high schooler taking the plunge to save us all despite her doubts and fears and the fact that she’s fighting her grandmother gives me hope for the future. Maybe it’s the fact that the solutions to these problems will likely come from today’s youth. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I should move on to a different point before I get super-political.
The first couple chapters of Mermaid in Chelsea Creek were a little slow, and I almost didn’t finish the book because of it. However, I’m definitely glad that I did, and the pacing does pick up a few chapters in.
I loved the references to the Polish language and culture. I come from a very Eastern-European family, and you really don’t see a lot of that heritage showing up in contemporary (or even historical) YA novels. It seems to me that whenever “heritage” is important to a character, it’s English, French, Irish, Italian, etc. (Taking a moment here to check my white privilege. Eastern Europeans may not show up as much in books as Western Europeans, but I know it’s more than those of non-European descent). I loved seeing phrases in Polish. I loved the shout-out to immigrant culture and the pain of losing language and culture.
While reading, I encountered phrases and passages that reminded me of Francesca Lia Block’s writing, which for me was great, because I love that writing style. It isn’t for everyone, but I can imagine that fans of Block or magical realism in general will have no problems with the writing style.
I’ll admit I was slightly disappointed to realize that this wasn’t a self-contained book. It’s not that I don’t want to read more, because I really do. I just get a little tired of so many YA series/trilogies/etc. Speaking as a writer, self-contained works are a greater challenge, at least for me, and I’m dying to see more in the market. But...you can bet your ass that I’m going to read the sequel when it comes out.
I put quite a few trigger warnings at the top of this review. Quick breakdown: Sophie’s best friend is a germaphobe who scrubs her skin raw when she feels dirty (this happens a lot due to the places in Chelsea that she and Sophie frequent). There is a character who is an alcoholic, although his page-time in the story is minimal. Several animals die towards the end of the book. Sophie’s mom, while she certainly isn’t abusive, is not particularly affectionate towards her daughter. In many instances this is noted by a lack of compassion and understanding coupled with neglect. There is a scene where Sophie confronts some boys who bully her. I can’t recall if there were any insinuations of a sexual nature, but I think there might have been (I already returned to the book to the library, so I can’t look it up. :/). Despite the numerous trigger warnings, I really do consider this book to be quite hopeful. I whole-heartedly recommend it, and I can’t wait for the next book.