In Irish folklore, a selkie is a seal who can take off her sealskin like a coat and become a woman, seducing fishermen anywhere she goes. If he steals her sealskin, she is bound to his home, marrying him and mothering his children – unless she can find it and escape, leaving her family on shore forever.
In Eelgrass, a lesbian reimagining of tales about women and the sea, Efa is having too much fun to worry about stories. Too young to have earned respect in her village, she spends her days roving with her beautiful and vivacious best friend, Bettan — until the night Bettan disappears into a rainstorm, and Efa can’t shake the certainty that she’s been taken.
Desperate to rescue her friend, Efa seeks out the fishwives, half-human fish who dwell under the tides and kill sailors with their sharp teeth and alluring songs. She doesn’t expect to find Ninka, an outrageous young woman who makes her feel giddy and who might be the key to unlocking her own courage.
I received a copy of Eelgras from the publisher’s in exchange for an honest review. As you might know, I really enjoy mermaid and selkie stories, so a story that has both selkies and mermaids sounded just to good to be true. I was also intrigued by the fact that it sounded like the selkie would fall in love with a mermaid, as it’s something different to the common non-human falling in love with a human trope.
This book is #ownvoices for lesbian representation.
I expected something completely different from this book – a simple story of a selkie falling in love with a mermaid with a little bit of adventure mixed into it. It ended up being a lot of adventure and very little romance – just what I like!
Selkies and mermaids are usually described as having a very similar culture to humans, which wasn’t the case in Eelgrass. Selkie and mermaid culture are similar to human culture in some aspects, but very different in others. All cultures are very detailed, not only in major details (e.g. sexism) but also in minor details (e.g. footwear, moving in water). Efa, for example, uses the word “fishwife” first, and then learns that “siren” is more respectful, even though the mermaid she knows personally doesn’t mind either word. A small passage that I really enjoyed was when one of the selkies described changing from a human body to a seal body – this is something I would like to read about more in other books.
The romance is beautiful. I enjoyed the slow and calm build-up, how both people gave the other space for her own development, and how they were both respectful of the other person’s culture. I also enjoyed that the relationship grew out of a friendship.
A large part of the book focusses on sexism, marriage, and forcing women to conform to society. It is about how society influences what people think is correct to do. It also shows how so many aspects factor in to a person’s decision and that a decision that may seem easy to make to an outsider, is actually not that easy for the person that has to make the decision. There is a crucial side-plot where Efa and Ninka think they are rescuing one woman from a forced marriage, and the woman explains to them that she wants to be married to this man, thus they learn that not everyone who they suspect of being forced into marriage is actually forced into marriage.
I was so angry when I realised what had happened to Bettan, Efa’s friend. I forgot that is was fiction at some point, because it was written very realistically and it was heartbreaking.
One issue I had, is that I didn’t understand what the reason for the betrayal was. One of the merpeople betrays their friends, and it’s never explained why they did that. Efa also still has internalised sexism, as she insinuates that women have better manners than men.
This was a wonderful book, and a much sadder and more serious fantasy story than I thought it would be. I enjoyed it a lot!
Trigger warnings: rape, forced marriage, kidnapping, murder.
Have you read Eelgrass? Do you know of any beautiful books about selkies and_or mermaids?