Book Review: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea (Series, #1)
Everyone in the broken-down town of Chelsea, Massachussetts, has a story too worn to repeat—from the girls who play the pass-out game just to feel like they’re somewhere else, to the packs of aimless teenage boys, to the old women from far away who left everything behind. But there’s one story they all still tell: the oldest and saddest but most hopeful story, the one about the girl who will be able to take their twisted world and straighten it out. The girl who will bring the magic.
Could Sophie Swankowski be that girl? With her tangled hair and grubby clothes, her weird habits and her visions of a filthy, swearing mermaid who comes to her when she’s unconscious, Sophie could be the one to uncover the power flowing beneath Chelsea’s potholed streets and sludge-filled rivers, and the one to fight the evil that flows there, too. Sophie might discover her destiny, and maybe even in time to save them all.
I feel like if you’re a queer person in New England, you’ve heard of this book. A magical realism read featuring queer characters and a diverse cast set not in Boston but in the nearby town of Chelsea. Its art is gorgeous, and I’ve spotted print versions of it in every single local bookstore. The locals are proud of this book, that’s for sure. With everything I’d heard and the pictures I’d seen when flipping through print copies, I was expecting something a bit different from what I got. Maybe more queer content? Maybe magical rules based in the here rather than in the “old world”? Regardless, I enjoyed it. It just wasn’t what I was expecting.
First, let’s talk about my favorite thing which was how much the author evokes the reality of the place of run-down New England towns in spite (or because of?) the magical content. My skin prickled when I read about Sophie and her best friend going to Revere Beach in the summer. It was just so damn accurate. I had a similar sensation when she talked about the feeling of being in a town that was once booming and now is struggling. There’s no doubt about it, the New England towns that were once booming from manufacturing and are now struggling simply feel dirty, and the author really evokes that. (I should know; I grew up in one). Oddly enough, this magical realism book brings out the feeling of small town struggling New England life more than a lot of realistic fiction I’ve read. If you want to know what it feels like to grow up in one of those towns, read this book.
Second, there’s the magical content. I was expecting something steeped in the local as well, but instead the magic was based entirely in countries parents and grandparents emigrated from. There’s nothing bad about that, it just wasn’t what I was expecting from a book so steeped in place. I also must admit that I found the whole vibe of “magic can only come from other places” to be a bit disappointing. America may be a young nation, but we have our own magic. I’d have liked to have seen a mix of both, rather than the magic be exlusively the domain of immigration.
Third, there’s the queer content. I think I was expecting it to take a more central role, particularly since this is ya (and was talked about a lot in the LGBTQ book reading community) but actually I found it to be more like how the local PCP just so happens to be Asian-American. It’s a thing some people just happen to be and not much is made of that. That’s not a bad thing, again, it just wasn’t what I was expecting.
Overall, this is a fun read steeped in local flavor that I recommend to anyone seeking a fantastical twist on struggling New England town life. That said, the second book in the series promises a journey to Europe, and personally what I liked best about this book was the local flavor, so I don’t think I’ll be continuing along.
4 out of 5 stars