A Song Below Water
Set in a world (Portland) with its mythos and magic firmly rooted in elements of the ‘here and now,’ Bethany C. Morrow’s debut young adult novel, A Song Below Water, is a coming-of-age story ...
- Blackness Present5.0
Set in a world (Portland) with its mythos and magic firmly rooted in elements of the ‘here and now,’ Bethany C. Morrow’s debut young adult novel, A Song Below Water, is a coming-of-age story certain to change the game.
It’s hard to know what to expect from a book touted as a story of “Black mermaids, friendship, and self-discovery.” But falling into this story’s rhythm is extremely easy.
A Song Below Water focuses on sisters Tavia and Effie. These teenagers live in a world populated by mythical creatures like elokos, gargoyles and sprites living peacefully alongside humans, but Sirens are unwelcome. The only remaining Sirens found in the populous are Black women. To avoid persecution Sirens have silenced themselves (literally) or keep their power hidden.
Tavia’s a Siren in hiding. Living through the purge known as the Siren Trials, with his mother, taught her father nothing good comes from discovery. So, no one wants to stifle her true nature more than her father. His singlemindedness has irreparably damaged their relationship.
Hiding behind a cover story about a medical condition that periodically steals her voice permits Tavia to manage her day-to-day. But as her stress and fear intensifies, Tavia’s ability to suppress her power falters. The only person she feels able to turn to is her sister, Effie.
Effie isn’t a Siren; but she’s intimately aware of danger that comes with invasive public attention. A harrowing experience at the hands of sprites, left her traumatized and four of her friends turned into stone. Since the incident, she’s known as “The Girl from the Park.” Plus, as time passes, it’s clear Effie’s definitely a mystical creature of some kind. Increasingly plagued by nightmares and hallucinations, she buries herself in preparations to take her place as the Renaissance Fair’s lead mermaid. Effie leans on her sister Tavia for support petrified, she’s sprite.
The sisters are inseparable and loyal to a fault. Despite their closeness, neither ever forgets that sometimes, keeping a secret means surviving.
Early on, the murder of a young Black woman named Rhoda Taylor sparks an outcry on social media that goes viral and leads to increased media scrutiny. The victim’s live-in boyfriend (and alleged murderer) turns the spotlight on Rhoda claiming she may have been a Siren. The declaration carries with it the implication that her death, while a tragedy, is somehow not his fault.
Suddenly the world’s focused on what Rhoda may have been rather than the fact that she was murdered. The attention – and a startling declaration from a popular online personality – pushes things to a dangerous tipping point. It’s a situation that puts Sirens, even the hidden or silent ones, in jeopardy.
It’s impossible to miss the myriad ways that misogynoir works to erase and oppress Black women in this society. A Siren, by her very nature, is dangerous is such a powerful allegory it’s a gut punch every time action drives the point home. But not for a second does this ever stop being the story of two girls coming into their own. Because the struggle to be seen and valued is a journey every Black woman must undertake to survive, and hopefully thrive.
Bonded by love, and a recognition of their common emotional baggage, these sisters-of-the-heart protect one another at all cost. And before all’s said and done, no one will walk away unscathed…and neither will you.
The messaging is pointed and poignant: To protest risks exposure. To embrace your nature is to risk persecution. To live your truth, or protect what you love, may require almost unimaginable sacrifice.
Morrow’s refreshingly accessible storytelling drags fantasy into the present with an engrossing story that’s almost uncanny in its thematic timeliness. Narratives built around people thrust into life’s pressure cooker, especially ones where the supernatural and the mundane mix on multiple levels, are tricky when there’s no “person” to label the villain.
A Song Below Water works because it weaves all its plot points and dense worldbuilding together then handily ties them to the underlying themes in a way that is the story.
Following Tavia and Effie as they stumble and recover (repeatedly) in a setting that properly situated race and bigotry as actively dangerously and hostile elements they truly are, upends notions of magical realism in a way that’s practically a declaration of war.
Morrow avoids common fantasy pitfalls by shunning the expected in favor of gifting readers with a fresh and vividly evocative tale. She deftly integrates heavy themes like, survivor’s guilt, fear, racism and bigotry, activism, powerlessness, and family dysfunction with such emotional honesty it provokes a decidedly visceral reaction.
The constantly alternating point of view provides ample opportunity to really dig into all Tavia and Effie’s issues without shortchanging either. It has to be said, there aren’t many genre tales that pull the father/daughter relationship into focus as an active part of a girl’s struggle to embrace herself. These damaged relationships are likely to find more than one reader’s soft targets. I can say it has a ripple effect to see the impact of those interactions on Tavia and Effie’s decision-making in turn.
This dual perspective also creates a more well-rounded look at this craftily built magical landscape. Although there are a few fantastical elements that exist without any referential mythology it ultimately works to the plot’s advantage; creating a lush world full of promise…for some.
This marvelous fairytale’s tailor-made to destroy comfort zones and drive home some much needed truths. I don’t know if Bethany Morrow intended to reshape the role of the supernatural and the mundane in fantasy but damned if she didn’t do exactly that.