REVIEW: Church of the Old Mermaids
Church of the Old Mermaids, a novel by Kim Antieau (Ruby Rose’s Fairy Tale Emporium, 2009), trade paperback, Kindle
This is a delightfully buoyant novel filled with humor and magic, yet grounded by serious themes. Even the cover is clever: A mermaid statue with a placard hanging from her neck to her waist with this information:
Church of the Old MermaidsThe Church of the Old Mermaids is "not a real church..." protagonist Myla Alverez tells us as the novel opens. It’s what she calls her space in an outdoor market in Arizona where she puts her table, chair and wares on Saturdays. She calls it the Church of the Old Mermaids because "her mother told her when she was a child that the desert had been a vast sea." It seems that Myla inhabits a magical world in which, for example, a "wash" continuing across the road by itself toward the desert moves "like a glacier" or "a slow dance troupe." She likes to imagine "that the mermaids had not dried up when the sea did; they merely changed their attitudes." Some of these attitudes are demonstrated by the Old Mermaids’ quotes that begin each of the 13 chapters. For example, at the head of the first chapter we read:
Kim Antieau, novice
Myla retrieves from the wash the items she brings to the Church to sell each Saturday. Each of them has a story that either she, or the people buying the items, tell. Here are short versions of some of the stories: Small colored bottles were once filled with a "precious liquid" by Bridget Mermaid later aided by Ruby Rosarita Mermaid who cooked a certain delicacy with it; A broken tile with a peach on it played a role in a romance between Sister Magdalene Mermaid, aka Sissy Maggie Mermaid, and an attractive younger man the Mermaids hired to help them tile their kitchen; An old ticket to a Mariners’ baseball game is connected to the relationship between one of the customers and his college roommate.
Get the starfish outta your eyes, sister.
–Sister Sheila Na Giggles Mermaid
These wonder-filled colorfully-written stories would have been enough to keep me engrossed, yet I was lured in further by weightier plots through which Myla encounters more practical issues, such as her role as the caretaker of The Old Mermaid Sanctuary, a group of five houses whose owners are away and where she stashes people who need temporary homes after crossing the border from Mexico; her relationships with three men with whom she has been or is involved; and a crisis of faith brought on by a declaration of love.
In fact, the stories themselves are not always light fluff. They can be profound. For example, the very moving story about "Gifting," reveals that the true essence of all the Mermaid stories is healing love.
Is it a stretch to see the Old Mermaids’ continued existence as a metaphor for survival of Goddess myths in the "desert" of patriarchal religion? After all, some of the 13 Old Mermaids bear Goddess or Goddess-like names: Grand Mother Yemaya Mermaid, Sister Sheila Na Giggles Mermaid, Sister Bridget Mermaid, Sister Sophia Mermaid.... Or maybe we should see the stories of the Old Mermaids as a display of how our culture would be if it revered old women? I’m not sure. Neither of these interpretations are necessary to enjoy the book; as with much good literature, the novel can be understood and appreciated on a number of different levels.
Antieau has written 6 other novels, which brings me to my confession: This is the first I’ve read. I guess that makes me a Kim Antieau novice. But not for long. I’ve taken a vow to read another of her books as soon as possible and look forward to becoming an Antieau postulant. As part of this spiritual path, let me leave you with a memento from the Old Mermaids -- the song they sang while healing a crow:
"The Old Sea rolls in and washes away the pain. The Old Sea rolls in and washes away infection and inflammation. The Old Sea rolls out and washes away all disease. So say the Old Mermaids. Blessed sea."TAGS:news book reviews spiritual feminism Goddess fiction Mexico-US border crossings