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Every time I read a Michelle Tea book, I fall through some portal into a strange new world. No matter if it is fiction or nonfiction, Tea has a way of making whatever she writes about jump off the page with an all-encompassing verve.
So it is with her newest fiction, Mermaid in Chelsea Creek. Ostensibly a young adult fantasy novel, there’s a whole lot more to it.
Welcome to Chelsea, MA. If you’ve never read Tea’s work, here’s a quick summation of Chelsea, the town Tea grew up in and often returns to her in her writing: “Chelsea was a city where people landed. People from other countries, people running from wars and poverty. . . . A city with trolley cars and brick houses and grand trees. . . . a city with so much wear and tear on it, so many people with so little money coming to it for so long, the threadbare buildings and dollar stores, the railroad tracks where men slept in the tall grass. . .” Chelsea is gritty. It’s dirty. It’s hard-knock. And it’s also ground zero, as these cities often are, for magic. In Michelle Tea’s work, shimmer is always accompanied by dirt—it’s one of the reasons why her writing has such a raw potency.
There’s a lot of fantasy in Mermaid in Chelsea Creek. After all, one of the characters is a foul-mouthed mermaid. There are also talking pigeons and witches, curanderas and dola. This fantasy world rests just on top of the real world, and Tea never loses sight of how the two interact. Sophie, the protagonist, is a thirteen-year-old only child, daughter of a single mother, whose grandmother owns the town dump. Not exactly a likely candidate for saving the world. But deep in Sophie is coiled a latent magic, a magic that might defeat all the evil and darkness spreading like plague across the globe.
Sophie is a normal enough teenager. She has an intense bond with her best friend Ella, she lies to her mother, she plays the “pass-out game.” She’s on the cusp of womanhood, in that strange land where, as a teenage girl, she is just learning how to step into her power. Most of us aren’t called by mermaids to eradicate evil, but anyone who’s been a teenage girl can understand the fear, paralysis, denial, and awkwardness that Sophie muddles through. Like most of the rest of us, Sophie stumbles, at first ungracefully, into her power.
But Sophie is also not normal at all. She’s heir to magic—both good and bad—and she must accept her fate as such. Sophie is lucky enough to have guides—even if they are a flock of talking pigeons, a glass-grinding, gender-bending woman named Angel, and a seven-hundred-year-old great aunt. So even as Sophie is burdened with responsibilities she doesn’t want, she’s also endowed with deep wisdom. One of my favorites: the dola (police of destiny) tells Sophie that enforcing someone to break another’s heart isn’t so awful—“‘A lot of great things happen because of broken hearts. It puts a lot of things into motion on this planet. Sometimes I think heartbreak is the dominant active energy. People start things they wouldn’t have started, they go places they wouldn’t have gone, they meet people they wouldn’t have met.’”
There’s a lot of heavy wisdom in this book, alongside the beauty and the grunge. It sits easily amidst the story, woven into the plot, helping propel the currents that drive Sophie toward her destiny. And there’s a lot of humor too—it wouldn’t be Michelle Tea if you didn’t laugh out loud at her spot-on cultural observations, her astute sarcasm at the banalities that infiltrate our gorgeous world.
Turning the final, heart-racing, pages of Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, I felt torn: part of me recognizes the openness of the ending as necessary—we are, after all, as a world, still in a state of needing to be saved, and it would be vilely untrue to wrap things up with a happy ending. But the other part of me was screaming More! More! I need to know what happens! Sequel? Trilogy? I, for one, hope so.
Mermaid in Chelsea Creek
By Michelle Tea
Hardcover, 9781938073366, 333 pp.