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FALSE MERMAID
by Erin Hart
Scribner, March 2010
336 pages
$26.00
ISBN: 1416563768


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Nora Gavin has spent three years in Ireland, examining bog bodies and teaching pathology at the university. But she always believed that her sister back in St Paul was murdered by her husband, Peter Hallett, five years ago. No one except Detective Frank Cordova agreed with her. Now she is returning to St. Paul to uncover the truth and force everyone to see Peter as the villain.

While in Ireland she fell in love with Cormac Maguire, but she leaves him behind. Determined to follow her, Cormac is deterred by the illness of his father from whom he has been estranged most of his life. While visiting his father in remote County Donegal, he finds a colleague of his, Roz, staying with him and studying Irish folklore.

The story that Roz is studying is about a mermaid, Mary Heaney, who was captured when a fisherman seized her seal skin and hid it. Until she could find it again, she had to remain in human form. Of course eventually she did find it and returned to the sea. Roz finds there was a Mary Heaney living in a village close by in 1896 who disappeared. She believes Mary was murdered by her husband, a story that parallels that of Nora's sister.

As you can see the plot and subplots of this book are very complex and intertwine and weave together and come apart again. They are not hard to follow, however, and Hart is skillful at telling each story with ample and telling details. There are other minor subplots. For example there is the story of the Cambodian refugee who was out fishing along the river in St Paul and found the decomposing body of a young woman. There is the story of Cormac's father and why he left home so many years before. This is a book rich in stories and details and characters.

The sense of place is so important to this book. In St Paul the concrete streets, the older neighborhoods, Hidden Falls, an oasis within the city, all lead us to logical scientific answers. In Ireland across the headland from the McGuire house the little deserted fishing village where seals frolic off shore and the battered and crumbling cottage where Mary Heaney once lived still stand but are much less substantial. The line between reality and fancy is much more blurred.

Characters are realistic and believable. Nora is obsessed with the idea of proving Peter Hallett guilty and can hardly focus on anything else. Cormac is torn between following her to America or caring for his ill father. Elizabeth, the eleven-year-old niece of Nora, is teetering on the edge of growing up, not knowing which way to go and not wanting anything to change. Peter Hallett and his new wife are probably the least convincing. Peter is so smooth and ingratiating that no one but Nora and Frank believe he could murder. His fiancée is so malacious it's hard to see her as a person.

Plotting is the most bothersome part of the book. So much of what Nora discovers as she searches depends on coincidence, on just happening on something that could and should have been discovered five years before. And it is hard to believe that she is able to make some of her discoveries so many years after the event. The reader is simply going to have to accept the coincidences in order to enjoy the book.

Throughout this story and especially in the parts set in Ireland, there is a thin, blurred line between reality and the supernatural, between the world we can see and touch and the world of myths and dreams. The motif of the seal as mermaid runs through the story and one seal seems to be Elizabeth's guardian angel. A very rare plant, the false mermaid, plays a significant role. It is all very mystical. Whether one really enjoys the book or not will probably be determined by how much of the supernatural she is willing to accept and believe.

The supernatural and the solid physical world that we know so well are inextricably mixed in this book. It is possible to read this and believe that legend is only legend and nothing truly happened that was not possible in this world. But it is also possible to read this book and believe.

Reviewed by Sally A. Fellows, December 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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