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Lisa Carey isn't the first writer to be fascinated by the recurring cycles of misunderstanding and rebellion that imprint themselves upon a family's history like self-fulfilling prophecies, nor is she likely to be the last. But judging by her gorgeous and affecting debut novel, she's certainly one of the best. Moving between Ireland and America from the 1950s to the present day, The Mermaids Singing is the story of three strong-willed, passionate women beset by generational conflict, their destinies mystically entwined with the sea and Celtic legend.
In her youth, proud, practical Clíona leaves Ireland to work as an au pair in Boston, planning to save her money and train as a nurse, then return to her sea-swept island of Inis Murúch the Isle of Mermaids. But her modest plans are interrupted by an unexpected pregnancy, and Clíona finds herself stranded in America, raising her daughter, Grace, in the home of her employer. In the wake of tragedy, Clíona and her 15-year-old daughter return at last to Ireland. But isolated Inis Murúch can never be home for Americanized Grace, and out of desperation, she steals away with her young daughter, Gráinne, abandoning the husband she passionately loves for the freedom she loves even more. Now, following her mother's death fromcancer,15-year-old Gráinne finds herself repeating the journey her mother was forced to make years before, returning to Inis Murúch with the grandmother she didn't know she had, in the hope of finding the father she has never known.
This bare-bones synopsis seems straightforward enough ambitious perhaps, for a first novel. But don't expect to find anything merely "straightforward" in The Mermaids Singing; Carey divides the narrative equally among these three complex, vividly realized women, diverting the plot's linear progression to accommodate a wealth of personal reflections. Through these seamless digressions the reader becomes privy to each character's hidden motivations and revealing inner monologues. Grace, first seen wraithlike and exhausted in the final stages of cancer, haunts the book through her third-person recollections. Yet even from this ghostly remove, her fierce independence and brazen sexuality smolder on the page. Despite her stoicism and emotional reserve, Clíona reveals a surprisingly adventurous past and a passionate desire to give Gráinne the love and family her own daughter rejected. Gráinne, herself reduced to bare bones by grief, experiences a profound catharsis as she overcomes the hurt and resentment brought on by her mother's death to experience at last a sense of belonging.
The images of the sea that flow throughout the novel link past and present as the ancient myths and legends of Ireland are played out anew. Time and again, Gráinne's life uncannily mirrors that of her namesake, the pirate queen of Inis Murúch, Gráinne Ní Mhaille. Daughter and wife of two 16th-century Connaught chieftains, Queen Gráinne mastered her grief after their deaths to rule both kingdoms, commanding respect on land and sea as no woman before her. Since childhood, Gráinne has set an extra place at the table out of respect for the pirate queen without really understanding why. Now, having navigated her own sea of unfathomable loss to experience the redemptive powers of family and love, she too finds safe harbor on Inis Murúch.
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The Mermaids Singing
It is only at night now that she has the strength to wander. Rising quietly, so as not to disturb her lover, Grace pulls a sweater over her pajamas, slips her feet into running sneakers. Stephen had bought her the sneakers to wear in the hospital after she refused to put on the regulation blue foam slippers. She is not a runner but she likes the height of them, the curve of the soles which roll her forward like a boat lifted by waves. She wraps a scarf around her gruesome bald head.
She passes through the cottage quickly, without looking at the tacky furniture -- leftovers from someone else's life. Stephen had rented this place so Grace could be near the sea. Sometimes she calls it "the hospice," in an attempt to be the blunt, witty sort of dying person she would like to be.
She goes first to the water, down the damp sand and over to the barnacle rocks, which she climbs gingerly, still surprised by the weakness of her limbs. She wants to stand on the rocks, dive into the cold water and swim the pain away, but she can only sit, watching the moonshine catch the waves, feeling the salty damp seep into her clothing and skin, breathing it; it is thick and familiar in her damaged lungs.
The sea does not speak to her in the daytime. When Stephen manages to coerce her into a walk, the sunlight, harsh on her yellowed skin, distracts her. The beach feels dangerous with Stephen, because of the way he clings to her elbow, guiding her over shells and rocks, assuring that the foamy tide does not wash against her fragile ankles. On these walks she feels like a captive, like a creature held just out of reach of herwatery home. She wants to shake him off, as passionately as she used to want to creep into his body because his hands on her skin were not enough. She hides the impulse to push him away, tells herself it is the cancer that makes her feel this repulsion. Though it is not the first time she has felt like a prisoner.
On the nights she escapes, the sea becomes hers again; the rhythm of the waves aligns itself with the thrust and ebb of her heart. She looks over the silver water and imagines another beach across the Atlantic, an Irish shore, the landscape a mirror reflection of this one. There, the wind in the coves was a chorus of the island mermaids, who moaned with the hopes of capturing a sympathetic man. She used to swim there, that moan in her blood, longing to leave. Now, though she has been gone from Ireland for twelve years, it is appearing to her, dropping in heavy folds, swallowing her present life. She thinks how odd it is, that the strongest convictions, like possessions, can lose all meaning when you are dying. Everything that she thought she was about has slipped from her, and the things she never wanted are clinging to her memory like the seaweed in the crevices at her feet.
Her mind is a collage of faces. She sees her mother, whose early wrinkles looked like crevices in rock, whose mouth was constantly clamped in a stern line, who always fought to keep her face expressionless. Grace hated that blank face, she raged to get it to register something -- even anger -- anything. Now she misses her mother, longs for her like a lonely child. But she escaped from that face and it's too late now, she believes, to ask for it back.
Another face her husband's, an Irish man. Though she has spent several years trying to erase him from her memory, his features come back to her in perfect detail; he glows like a stubborn ghost when she closes her eyes. She wonders why she ever left, why she can't remember what went wrong between them. He was kind, she knows. Had that not been enough? It means more to her now, kindness.
When she feels her body crawling toward sleep, far too soon, she goes back to the cottage, slips into its silence. She opens a bedroom door, checks on her daughter -- a teenager who sleeps like a child, her limbs sprawled, mouth gaping, the sheets twisted like vines around her ankles. The glinting black curls on the pillow are her father's. At one time, Grace might have righted the bedding, smoothed the masses of hair away from her daughter's face. But tonight she only stands there, afraid of waking her. They avoid each other now, these two, as intensely as they once clung together.
She closes the door, walks across the dark living room. At a table in the corner she sits, switching on a miniature desk lamp. There is an old typewriter here, a stack of crisp white paper beside it. She winds a sheet through, and types out a note, flinching at the sound of keys, like gunshots in the night.
Gráinne, she types.
Please pick up cereal and matches if you pass by the G. S. today. If you have any clothes that need washing -- and you must by now, kiddo, unless you plan to keep wearing those stinking jeans -- give them to Stephen, he's going to the laundromat.
She props the note on the refrigerator with a lobster-shaped magnet. She doesn't know why she continues to compose these strange communications, why she cannot say anything she really feels. She wants to ask her daughter if she's all right, wants to know what she does all day and half the night when she's away from the cottage. But Grace has lost the ability to ask anything. Once, she had prided herself on speaking bluntly, honestly to her daughter. Only recently has she admitted that she's been lying all along. She lied by never telling . . . The Mermaids Singing. Copyright © by Lisa Carey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.