Top Five Saturday: Books about Mermaids

This Top 5 series is back! Top Five Saturday is a meme hosted by Devouring Books to discover and share books that all have a common theme. Previously on the blog I have focused on witches, werewolves, thrillers, faeries, fairy tale re-tellings, high fantasy and many more. I am going to try and bring this series back for every Saturday.

Previous Top Five Saturday Lists:


  • 15th February 2020 — Books about Mermaids
  • 22nd February 2020 — Books about Spies
  • 29th February 2020 — Books inspired by Mythology

Mermaids are not a huge feature of my reading, it has to be said! I do love me a great nautical yarn from Moby Dick to Jamrach’s Menagerie to Life of Pi but none of these have mermaids in. Or do they?

Also it is so not Saturday anymore but, well, life happens sometimes!

The List

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Imogen Hermes Gowar

“The water stirs. In the dark it appears quite black, apart from the mica booming through it like stars. At first he thinks, why, there is nothing here. My wife was right: I have been duped. Then the water heaves a great sigh, rainbows glance across the copper, and he sees her. She is indistinct but there is no doubting she is there. She is like a shoal of tiny fish, all surging and flickering together, a great mass that forms and re-forms and thinks all in accord. He can make out sometimes her arms, and often her swirling hair. He sees the silvery rolling-over of her heavy tail. He hangs over the water for many minutes as she sighs and rolls.

“He had wanted to dash back to her bed, to tell her about this thing he can make no sense of, but something had rooted him quite to the spot. Instead he found himself standing over that vat for minutes that stretched into hours, searching the water for the shifting creature within.”

This is a delightful historical narrative with not one but two mermaids: the first is the historical chimeric mummified creature; but the second, which is described above, is more of a sprite and a spirit and alive and malevolent and melancholic – and utterly mesmerising.

The Pisces, Melissa Broder

“What I saw was that this was no wet suit at all, but somehow a massive, slimy, heavy tail. It was literally connected to his body. Maybe it was his body? Underneath the cloth were what I assumed might be genitals, then, if he had them? And just below that was an area where the tail, or whatever this was, met his skin. It did not meet in a straight line like the top of a pair of pants, but blended gradually. First there was an area that was mostly skin with a peppering of black scales, like one or multiple birthmarks. From there the scales became more raised, almost like moles or lesions. They began to cluster closer together until they became a solid mass, like rubber or the thick skin of a fish. It looked like time happening, like a wave gradually rolling up on the sand. It was as though whatever this was had happened over time, like some kind of infection—gradually taking over his body.

“Except this wasn’t an infection. It was like he was part fish.”

The merman in The Pisces is distinctly corporeal and physical! It is hard to find a description of him that is PG rated and my review certainly wasn’t! This was such a bizarre book: partly about a mental breakdown (and could have been included in previous Mental Illness and Unreliable Narrator lists); and partly erotic fantasy. The merman represents a physical love which is simultaneously intoxicating and destructive: the descent into the ocean he offers is both deeply sexual and deadly.

The Scar, China Miéville

On the first day, as Tanner lay deep in chymical and thaumaturgic sleep, the chirurgeon opened him.

“He scored deep gashes in the sides of Tanner’s neck, then lifted off the skin and outer tissue, gently wiping away the blood that coursed from the raw flesh. With the exposed flaps oozing, the chirurgeon turned his attention to Tanner’s mouth. He reached inside with a kind of iron chisel and slid it into the pulp of the throat, twisting as he pushed, carving tunnels in the flesh.

“Constantly vigilant that Tanner was not choking on the blood that ran into his mouth and throat, the chirurgeon created new passageways in his body. Runnels linked the back of Tanner’s mouth to the openings in his neck. Where the new orifices opened behind and below his teeth, the chirurgeon ringed them with muscle, pushing it into place with a clayflesh hex, stimulating it with little crackles of elyctricity.”

There are a range of options for mermaids in The Scar, second in (and my favourite of) Miéville’s glorious Bas-Lag trilogy: the rather civilised cray have human upper bodies but crustacean legs; the monstrous grindylow have “jutted prognathous jaws, their bulging teeth frozen in meaningless grimaces, massive eyes absolutely dark and unblinking. Their arms and chests were humanoid, tightly ridged with muscles and stretched skin, grey-green and black, shiny as if with mucus. And narrowing at the waist, the grindylow bodies extended like enormous eels into flat tails several times longer than their torsos.” But I present to you Tanner, forcibly Remade and then self re-Remade into something like a mermaid, amphibious and dextrous and finding his own element and, unlike most of these merfolk, not malevolent.

The Bear and the Nightingale, Katharine Arden

“THE DAY THE PRIEST ARRIVED, Vasya was sitting in a tree talking to a rusalka. Once, Vasya had found such conversations disconcerting, but now she had gotten used to the woman’s green-skinned nakedness and the constant drip of water from her pale, weedy hair. The sprite was sitting on a thick limb with catlike nonchalance, steadily combing her long tresses. Her comb was the rusalka’s greatest treasure, for if her hair dried, she would die; but the comb could conjure water anywhere. When she looked closely, Vasya could see the water flowing from the comb’s teeth. The rusalka had an appetite for flesh; she would snatch fawns drinking in her lake at dawn, and sometimes the young men who swam there at midsummer. But she liked Vasilisa.

“It was late afternoon, and the light of the long northern days shone down on the two, bringing out the radiance in Vasya’s hair and fading the rusalka to a greenish, woman-shaped ghost. The water-spirit was old as the lake itself, and sometimes she looked wonderingly on Vasya, the brash child of a newer world.”

The Winternight Trilogy is wonderful and refreshing, set in and deeply entwined with Russian mythology including the Rusalka – more sprite and spirit, perhaps, than most mermaids but just as blood thirsty and treacherous and the untrustworthy as the waters she embodies. And, alas, a minor player in the novels.

Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie

“The children often spent long summer days on this lagoon, swimming or floating most of the time, playing the mermaid games in the water, and so forth. You must not think from this that the mermaids were on friendly terms with them: on the contrary, it was among Wendy’s lasting regrets that all the time she was on the island she never had a civil word from one of them. When she stole softly to the edge of the lagoon she might see them by the score, especially on Marooners’ Rock, where they loved to bask, combing out their hair in a lazy way that quite irritated her; or she might even swim, on tiptoe as it were, to within a yard of them, but then they saw her and dived, probably splashing her with their tails, not by accident, but intentionally.

“The most haunting time at which to see them is at the turn of the moon, when they utter strange wailing cries; but the lagoon is dangerous for mortals then…”

And with this final depiction of mermaids, we keep with the same theme: mermaids throughout this list have been sinister, suggestive, fluid and deeply other and Barrie’s are no exception. As Peter and Wendy lie unconscious and exhausted on a rock in their lagoon, that one creeping mermaid hand sneaking out – snaking out? – to grip Wendy’s leg to pull her under is deliciously creepy in a child’s story!

And is that not the appeal and terror of the mermaid? The being out of your element, the feat of what might be on the other side of that boundary between the earthly and the aqueous?

The Tags

Amanda @ Devouring Books

Susan @ Novel Lives

Elanor @ Reading At Teatime

Theresa @ Theresa Smith Writes

Stephen @ Steven Writes

10 thoughts on “Top Five Saturday: Books about Mermaids”

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