Mermaid Coast dives into a summer of dangerous sirens
AS a child, I was obsessed with mermaids. As I got older, I was also much taken with selkies: seals, who on coming ashore, so the legend goes, shed their skins to become human. The 1994 film ‘The Secret of Roan Inish’ is based on this myth.
So imagine my delight when I came across ‘The Mermaid Coast’, the debut novel of US-based Australian writer Robert Woolcott. Set mainly in East Hampton on New York’s Long Island, this enthralling tale begins in a mansion with the discovery of the body of a wealthy man floating in a swimming pool.
He was apparently killed after having sex with a mysterious woman, who narrator Alec Costner, a writer, hears, then follows. He watches her enter the ocean:
I saw her, just a glimpse, caught in the shallow water of a cresting wave. But she wasn’t alone. On either side of her were two women. Each woman had taken one of her arms and were escorting her out to sea . . . The two women, acting as escorts, had tails. Their tails flapped out of the water . . . and then they were gone.
Costner becomes a suspect in the man’s death. But Pharaoh, a Native American policeman involved in the investigation, tells him about an Algonquin legend: every 30 years, mermaids come ashore to breed with humans. “They are beautiful but will kill you should you threaten them.”
As it happens, this year, when the novel is set, is 30 years after mermaid sightings were reported off New Hampton, and in different coastal areas around the world. Woolcott’s murder mystery is dedicated to “all those souls who were led to a watery grave by the lure of the siren’s song”.
Through the centuries, famous people have reported seeing mermaids and Woolcott draws on them in his novel. On January 9, 1493, Christopher Columbus wrote in his diary: “The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water, but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men.”
In ‘The Mermaid Coast’, a scientist arrives at East Hampton intent on proving the existence of mermaids. Strange encounters are documented and men disappear. While all this may seem a bit fishy, I was willing to suspend disbelief and give myself over to the flights of fancy in this entertaining debut novel.
‘The Mermaid Coast’
By Robert Woolcott
Shanty Publishing, 392pp, $28.99
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including five novels.
The Weekend Australian, November 30-December 1, 2013, Review, Books, p 22.