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Book Talk: Beauty and darkness mix in mermaid tale

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - A princess, hidden away in a convent. A mermaid, saving a handsome stranger. The prince they both come to love.
/ Source: Reuters

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - A princess, hidden away in a convent. A mermaid, saving a handsome stranger. The prince they both come to love.

This triangle underlies author Carolyn Turgeon's "Mermaid," an edgy new look at the Hans Christian Anderson's "Little Mermaid" that contains as well sacrifice, the threat of war, and the uneasy friendship of two women drawn together in spite of themselves.

The book is Turgeon's second look at folktales now more widely known in their lighter Disney versions. Her previous novel was a modern take on "Cinderella," including a fairy godmother who wanted to go to the ball too -- with far-ranging consequences.

Turgeon spoke with Reuters about her book, mermaids, and the old, dark versions of tales that are "in our blood and bones."

Q: How did you decide to write this book?

A: I'm attracted to fairy tales and that mixing of darkness with the magical, sparkly, beautiful part of them. I wanted to do something with the original Little Mermaid story but I didn't really know how to approach it. The Anderson version is really dark, depressing and weird. It's beautiful, I really love it. But unlike Cinderella, where it was easy to go in and look at the dark side of the story because it's clearly there but not really at the forefront, the Little Mermaid is such a weird, dark story I didn't really know what to do with it.

I imagined the princess, if she was stuck in a convent or something, which she seems to be in the original, and if she was missing her princess life. She'd be out in the garden looking out over the ocean and then, what if she witnessed that moment when the mermaid rescues the prince and brings him to shore. So I thought about that moment, and I could just see it and smell it and taste it, just standing there in that bitter cold, looking over that ocean and then seeing this miraculous thing happen. I thought about the weird dynamic that would be there, her looking at this gorgeous, strange, kind of grotesque but amazing mermaid, and the almost drowned man in her arms, and the mermaid having a bit of radiance and love in her face as she's looking over the man. How the princess would stand there and be attracted to the prince, but mostly through the gaze of the mermaid. All that yearning and longing going on between the mermaid and the princess, who sort of want to be each other. Then I had a way into the story and it just kind of unraveled from there.

Q: Was it fairly quick from then?

A: Yes, actually. Once I figured out that this is what the story is: these three characters, and what they all want. Mainly it's about the two women. This princess and her desire for the man, and her desire -- whatever kind it is -- for the mermaid or for the magic that the mermaid represents, the beauty and the wonder. The mermaid of course is longing to be human and like the princess. They're set up as rivals, not even really knowing it. I became much more interested in what happens with those two, rather than what happens with the prince.

These women sort of love each other, hate each other, are jealous of each other, are empathetic. All that happening at one time, lots of conflicted desires and feelings.

Q: Why mermaids?

A: Mermaids are everywhere. I just think that they're such a strange, hybrid kind of symbol. On one hand they're a totally sexual female, and on the other hand they're this completely inaccessible fish creature from the bottom of the sea, that's linked to all kinds of mystery and weirdness and the unconscious. Female and incredibly sexual, with these bare breasts and this long hair and they're singing and luring men to their deaths. On the other hand, they have no genitals, they have a big fish tail, and they live on the bottom of the ocean with all sorts of weird stuff that we've never seen. And they're totally gorgeous.

They're a symbol of repressed sexuality, which is why they were so appealing to Hans Christian Anderson who, as far as we know, never had sex in his whole life and was always falling in love with people, men and women, who didn't return his affection.

Q: Why work with folk and fairy tales?

A: I think there's something really powerful about going into those old stories, turning them around a bit and revealing aspects of them you wouldn't have thought of before. For me, before, it was: what was the story of the fairy godmother? And all of a sudden the whole story flipped around. Because I'd never really thought of her, who cares what her motivation is? She's there to get Cinderella to the ball. And then you ask the question, what if the godmother wants to go to the ball too, what if she longs to be human too and go through the kind of stuff Cinderella's going through too? That's an awkward position to be in, if you're the godmother who's always enabling people to love and happiness.

To me, there's something exciting and mind-blowing about going into a story you know and love, and sort of blowing it open a little bit. It's forcing you to switch your perspective and think about some kind of perspective that was invisible before.