Book Review: When We Believed in Mermaids

I first met Barbara O’Neal at the Writer’s Unconference last November, shortly after her latest novel came out. On Christmas Eve, while browsing at Island Books, I overheard someone asking for this book by both name and author. “We’re sold out, unfortunately,” the bookseller replied—a good news/bad news dilemma I hope to face someday.

When I finally got my hands on a copy, I discovered that this Colorado native has produced an excellent example of #coastalfiction! I’ll publish an interview with her in a few weeks, but for now here’s a quick review of her latest book.

Mermaids starts off with a gripping first sentence: “My sister has been dead for nearly fifteen years when I see her on the evening news.” The narrator, Kit, is an ER doc in Santa Cruz, up late after another stressful shift; this added shock sends her right to her favorite recovery spot, a nearby surfing beach. Instead of recounting what she drives by along the way, Kit instead takes us back in time to replay a few key memories about her family. So by the time we meet her mother for a post-surf breakfast, we understand the coolness of their relationship. We also understand (and sympathize with) her mother’s reaction when Kit asks, at the close of the first chapter, “What if she’s really alive?”

The mom replies: “I guess I’m going to have to kill her.”

Page-turner

This of course demands that we turn the page to find out what happens next. But just when we’re feeling intrigued but grounded in Kit’s world, the second chapter drops us into Auckland and a totally different first-person point of view. O’Neal trusts her reader to figure out that this new narrator must be the mysterious “dead” sister—who’s very much alive to her lovely husband and the historic hillside house he’s just bought for her, as a surprise.

Twelve pages in, I was already absolutely certain that these two sisters would meet and reconcile. What I didn’t yet know is what drove them apart in the first place—so I kept reading, partly to understand their scars, and partly because I just enjoyed spending time with each of them.

#coastalfiction

We are all advised to “write what you know,” but this mountain-based author has captured a world that fits right into the #coastalfiction genre. We feel in our bones the sisters’ joy of wave-riding, and see the mesmerizing changes in both ocean and sky as a storm approaches. Neither narrator can sleep away from the ocean, and even their mother requires a water view to feel safe.

O’Neal describes Auckland in a way that makes me want to go back there again, showing us both harbor ferry rides and the late-night bar scene. My only distraction was the constant use of “CBD,” which I kept reading as the cure-all derivative of hemp oil; thanks to Wikipedia, I now understand it is Auckland’s “Central Business District.”

Promises kept

While none of the characters is too perfect, the rosy expectations set by the back cover text (and cover’s beach scene) are definitely met by a happy (if somewhat predictable) ending. And, unlike many recent novels from multiple-book authors (perhaps accustomed to more rigorous editing from their publisher), the middle reads as smoothly as the opening chapter.

O’Neal has created characters who, while flawed, remind us of how to be good partners and siblings: listen well, and be prepared to change and forgive. She also points out the subtle ways we recognize people we haven’t seen for a long time: a distinctive walking style, seen across a street, can take us right back to childhood.

When We Believed in Mermaids is recommended for anyone who enjoys a deep dive into how memories continue to haunt and shape us. I’m looking forward to diving into O’Neal’s impressive list of previously published books, but first: have you read a novel recently that could be classified as #coastalfiction? Comment below, or send me an email. I read every (human) remark, so thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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