Allen Frost’s novel, The Mermaid Translation, is a strange and experimental novel that carries many allusions to surrealism. The inclusion of mermaids, skeletons, and circus performers lends the story a bizarre quality recalling simultaneously Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet. In Frost’s madcap story the protagonist, Sanford, emerges from his home in a little-used submarine, known more comically as the “bathysphere,” into what appears to be post-apocalyptic America. Although this story seems strange, there is an overwhelming sense of rebirth, with Sanford’s bathysphere serving initially as a womb image from which “Sanford entered the world” (8). The mermaids and talking tigers are shown a new evolutionary stage that has taken over the world in the absence of a dominant human race. The few humans who exist in this novel are clearly a dying breed and are increasingly shown not to belong in the new circus freak society that has built up since “America’s crash” (11). This culminates in a flood scenario in which Sanford is washed away to sea in his bathysphere, an obvious allusion to the Biblical flood and to the beginning of a new world.
In many ways, then, this novel also aspires to the post-apocalyptic style that has recently been delivered by writers such as Margaret Atwood, which construct a world in the problematic and volatile America that has reverted almost entirely to a pre-industrial social order. In this world cars are equated to dinosaurs and libraries are strange archives that seem to provide the only distribution outlet for the ghostly poet whose art is rapidly dying out. In this respect the novel has a much more serious message at its heart, expressing a view of American society that seems lighter, brighter and more hopeful without the presence of a dense human population insistent on technological advancement and, consequently, the pollution of the environment. Rebirth here is a positive and necessary stage, but the underlying political and social commentary that usually accompanies this image is only implied in this novel, while the shortness of the text means that there is little space for a considered exploration of the theme. Rather, Frost writes an entertaining story in which there is a grain of important truth and allows that truth to shine through in a simple and non-didactic way.
The book as a whole is written with flair and highly enjoyable. Its short chapters and simplified illustrations adhere to a minimalist but no-less-evocative style that suggests a desire on the part of the author not to waste a word. The uncomplicated language makes this a very easy and quick-to-read text, but the imagery that it contains is vivid and should appeal easily to popular taste, as novels which contain magical elements and circus performers never fail to find a wide audience. The Mermaid Translation serves as a fine example of good storytelling and imaginative presentation, which make it well worth reading several times over.
De Montfort University, Leicester, UK