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Makara (Handtype Press), Kristen Ringman’s debut novel, is the story of Fionnuala, the deaf daughter of a man and a selchie, or seal-woman. The selchies are mythical creatures of Ireland—as legend has it they may leave the sea for seven years, after which they are beholden to return to the water. Fionnuala’s attachment to her mother is fierce, but most of Makara takes place once Fionnuala’s mother has returned to the ocean. Traversing from Ireland to India to Venice, Makara manages to be both ethereal and incredibly earthly at the same time. It is a coming-of-age story unlike any other.
Makara is full of binaries. Fionnuala’s deafness heightens her experience of internal versus external. Her experience of the world is a very interior one—even the dialogue in the novel seems not of the outside world. That being said, Fionnuala’s observant nature makes the external world come alive when she describes it. She says upon arrival in India: “The air was filled with dust and black clouds. I coughed a few times. Musky perfumed incense mixed with fuel oils. People were everywhere, hanging out of buses and tiny rickshaw taxies that were like golf carts with bright yellow hoods.” Also binary is Fionnuala’s sexuality, which awakens to Neela, the daughter of the family she lives with in India, though she is not averse to dalliances with boys later on. There is, however, some uneasiness and confusion over her sex with men, due to a rape when she was younger. The rape, as it turns out, plays a pivotal role in the structure of Fionnuala’s life—not only because of her emotional reactions to it, but also because of her family’s reactions to it.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of Makara is Ringman’s treatment of the body–Fionnuala is born with webbed fingers and toes, but that’s just the beginning of her heightened viewpoint of the world around her. Fionnuala’s deafness is central to her narrative, and this definitely influences how important her other senses are to her. One of the most powerful scenes is when Fionnuala learns to “listen” in the darkness:
I couldn’t hear footsteps. Everything in the dark reaches me through my eyes and skin. I see shadows, glimpses, movements. Most of my surroundings don’t exist unless they are something I can touch, see, or smell. But I do feel things. Every motion in the dark has a domino effect.
By the time Fionnuala reaches Venice as a teenager, she is in full coming-of-age struggle. She rejects her father and mourns the loss of her mother, Neela, and her old life in India. But Venice holds the key to transformation for Fionnuala. She meets two friends and begins working as a street mime – an impulse that proves as natural to Fionnuala as swimming underwater. Though Fionnuala’s story is far from finished while she is in Venice, The Floating City is where she gets her stride, and with it, an understanding of her life.
Makara is a strange, mysterious novel. Many parts of it are disorienting (though I don’t say this as a criticism). The vocabulary alone—filled with Irish words and unusual images—is enchanting. But deep down, Makara is a love story. Fionnuala’s love for her mother, for Neela, for her friends in Venice, and ultimately, for her father, infuse the novel with brilliance and beauty.
Ringman writes in straightforward, uncluttered prose, and this serves the story well – because there are many places where the plot enters strange territory, and having a grounded writing style keeps the novel from floating away. Fionnuala feels and perceives the world in a very tactile way and her narration captures this well.
Though Makara is a slim book, it takes some time to get through. The dense prose and interiority of the narrative submerge the reader in a strange, beguiling new experience. Be ready to dive into a world unlike any other.
By Kristen Ringman
Paperback, 9780979881640, 174 pp.