Review by: Sean Dowie
The Deep is a novella that I can easily hold in one hand, yet feels like a megaton. It’s laden with the weight of the past, the burden of memories, and the heaviness of emotional isolation. And that’s just part of the weightiness of its journey. I haven’t even mentioned the satisfying devastation of reading through the twisty character arcs and simply written, yet emotionally potent sentences. The book delivers gut-punch after gut-punch until you feel akin to seasick, deeply sympathizing with protagonist Yetu’s hardships, and wondering how she can cope. The Deep is true to its name and plunges into the depths of the ocean and oft unspoken truths to find that answer.
Based on a narrative song by Clipping, which was inspired by an idea from techno group Drexciya, The Deep explores a world of water-dwellers called wajinru–creatures originating as babies of black, pregnant women who were thrown into the ocean during the transport of African slaves to America. These babies became mermaid-like creatures, creating their own community in the sea.
Some generations since their inception lives Yetu—a wajinru historian. Yetu’s job is to single-handedly carry the history of the wajinrus’ ancestors, a latticework of the past, both positive and negative. Every year, Yetu shares the past with the other wajinrus, granting them lingering inklings of the memories that they can carry until the next year, rather than full-forced images of trauma, adrenaline, and complexity that Yetu must carry throughout her waking life. Things have, at least at first glance, operated quite swimmingly for the wajinrus in the past, with a good symbiosis between historian and the other wajinrus. But Yetu doesn’t have the mental constitution of past historians—she needs some sort of release from history’s anxieties.
The Deep has an uncanny ability to condense in-depth description of a species’ history, characters with unending facets, and dialogue that has one-hundred unsaid sentences burbling beneath the surface. The novella made me feel like I was at sea—giving me a ride with its turbulent waves, and unable to see what lies ahead, like looking at the bottom of the ocean, knowing unseen, mesmerizing creatures lie beneath.
Even the mid-section of the book, where Yetu is confined to a single, placid location is simmering with emotion. Romance blooms between two broken characters in a deliberate way that isn’t a straight, fast line towards love. Like waves, there are crests and nadirs, but it was quite clear to me that these characters were a good match for each other—the reparation of their issues, whether it be a want of community or a want of relief lie quite clearly in each other.
The theme of the burdens of memory and history can be applied not just to the wajinrus in The Deep, but also to ongoing issues besetting humanity today. Issues of brutalities against the Black body in the past, and the ongoing issues of systemic racism currently plaguing our world is often sloughed off, both by the perpetrators who aren’t personally affected by it, as well as those who are directly affected by it but choose to live as close to blissful ignorance as possible. It can be easier to go about our life with rose-colored glasses that blind us to any reminders that there’s intense suffering in the past, and perhaps a tad more subtle, but equally painful suffering in the present. Having the burden of an entire society laid on a single person would crush them, no matter their vitality. But The Deep showcases that pain doesn’t have to be shouldered in solitude.
Because even though the world is rotten, doesn’t mean there are slits of freshness hidden away. As wrongheaded as the world is, both in past and present, there are many worthwhile things about it. By having people collectively hold the weight of injustices, they get to see the pockets of joy peeking out of the rot.
There’s also the burden of isolation from those different than you. The Deep showcases a clear divide between humans and wajinrus, both geographically (one species lives in the ocean, the other on land), physically (one species look like mermaids, the other does not), and customs. And the wajinrus have a justification for the divide, even if most of them have just a faint, lingering memory of why: the creation of the wajinrus was brought about because of the cruelty of humanity who threw people they thought to be expendable into the sea. But while the storied past between the two species started out very rocky, Yetu’s interaction with humans pans out better. She gets food, attention, and interpersonal relationships because of them. And while the rituals between the two species are like night and day, the novella does have an instance of a character crossing the divide between the species, joining their culture. The activities of the sea heavily contrast the ones of the land, but The Deep demonstrates that differences of cultures don’t preclude someone from transitioning between them—there’s a learning curve, but the impossibility of being welcomed in is an illusion. For all the book’s probing of the real flaws of the human (or water-dweller) condition, The Deep offers a message of acceptance, both inside and outside your community.
I’m so happy that The Deep exists—it’s such a gripping and profound novella. It moves at a ceaselessly entertaining pace, is highly readable, and tackles worthwhile issues in wholly original ways. The book has the power of a megaton, but whenever I sat down to read some more, I never felt burdened with disinterest or plodding prose. Pacey yet incisive, fun yet intelligent, gutting yet conclusively uplifting, Rivers Solomon has crafted a delightfully rich diet-confection in literary form. Let it wash over you—when you get to its optimistic end, you won’t feel like drowning.