I realize I’ve fallen far behind in my reviews lately. In honor of Pride Month, and for other quite obvious reasons, I’m finally getting around to posting my review of Rivers Solomon’s amazing mermaid story, The Deep.
Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes
November 2019, Gallery/Saga Press
When pregnant African women were thrown overboard from slave ships to conserve dwindling supplies for their captors, the restorative magic of the deep allowed their babies to survive and transform into the first merpeople, the Wajinru.
Today, the Wajinru survive and live with the horror of their origins by placing all the memories of every Wajinru who ever lived in the mind of a single Historian. The Historian periodically shares the memories with the rest in a Remembering ceremony, guiding them through the story and satisfying their craving for identity and belonging, before allowing them to return to blissful ignorance.
Yetu is this generation’s Historian, and seeing through the eyes of every dead Wajinru, bearing the weight of tragedies that those around her are willfully unable to understand, has gradually erased her individually identity and ultimately her will to exist. In a desperate attempt to save her own life, she runs away in the middle of a Remembrance, leaving the other Wajinru floundering under knowledge they don’t remember how to bear, and strikes out to discover who she is beyond the suffocating role she’s been assigned.
At only 166 pages, The Deep is a quick read, but both the characters and the world have plenty of room for deeper exploration. Maybe a sequel will show us more. The story also arguably treads water (pun intended) toward the middle, but that’s certainly preferable to rushing Yetu’s overdue retreat of self-reflection, or the development of her first romance.
The entire premise of The Deep forces a bitter conflict between the duty to self and duty to community. That’s an important, universal theme that Yetu’s predicament captures well, but it’s not a rare one for fiction to tackle. What sets The Deep apart is the simultaneous, connected, equally bitter conflict between the need for truth, and the need to avoid drowning in the ugliness of that truth. To save herself, and the people and planet she loves, Yetu must confront head on a set of catch-22s that many people will spend a lifetime trying to reconcile or ignore.
Meanwhile, Yetu’s also discovering the joy and terror of first love with a human woman, who’s wrestling with identity and belonging issues of her own. Wajinru are hermaphroditic and choose their own gender identities if they wish, but refreshingly, this is not among the things that Yetu finds confusing about her world or herself. There’s a beautifully frank scene in which Yetu and her prospective love interest ask each other honest questions about how sexuality works for them, and give honest answers as best they can. It’s an unfortunately special moment to see fictional love interests communicate so openly and functionally about anything, let alone something so personal and sensitive.
The Deep is insightful, beautiful, and intensely human on multiple levels, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an extremely different take on a classic fantasy character type.