Book Review: The Shape of Water

the shape of waterThe Shape of Water
by Daniel Kraus and Guillermo del Toro
Magical Realism
314 pages
Published 2018

Alright, so, with as much as I enjoy twists on mermaid stories, this was kind of inevitable, right? I’d heard a lot about the movie, but hadn’t yet seen it, so I figured I’d read the novelization. What I didn’t realize until reading the book, though, is that this isn’t actually a novelization of the movie. The movie and the book were written at the same time, about the same story, but tell different parts of it. (This article explains how both were written.) The book delves more into the mythology behind the creature, and gets into the thoughts and feelings of both the creature and Elisa. Those things are incredibly hard to communicate in film, especially when the characters can’t speak! So, far from “reading the book instead of seeing the movie,” now that I’ve read the book, I REALLY want to see the movie!

If you haven’t heard of the movie, the basic premise of both movie and book is Elisa, a mute janitor at a top secret research facility, is cleaning a lab when she sees what’s contained in it – an amphibious man-like creature kept in captivity and experimented on. She teaches him sign language and eventually falls in love with him and decides to break him out of the lab before the researchers kill him. The plot is set in the 60s, so there’s a lot more overt racism and sexism going on, as well as some Cold War spycraft.

It’s also set in Baltimore, which is another thing I didn’t know before reading the book!

There’s a pretty good amount of minority representation here – Elisa is mute, her two best friends are black (Zelda) and gay (Giles). Zelda worries about her place as “the black friend” of a white woman, but also sees Elisa as a little damaged and in need of her care. When Elisa gets tunnel vision on the merman, Zelda’s worries are mostly confirmed, but not for the reasons she thinks, since Elisa shuts out Giles too. There’s definitely something to be learned there about hurting your friends unintentionally when starting a new relationship!

A lot of people saw this plot as super weird, with the woman falling in love with the sea-creature, but how many mermaid films do we have where the man falls in love with the mermaid when she still has her fish tail? Sure, the merman here is fully scaled and can’t talk, but Ariel can’t talk in most versions of The Little Mermaid, either. I don’t see it as much different, other than it’s a women falling in love with someone who isn’t the typical image of masculinity. And at least in the book, there are a couple of chapters from his perspective. He’s sentient and consenting. (I hope that comes across in the movie, too.)

I really enjoyed this one, and I definitely need to watch the movie to get the rest of the story. The book is self-contained – nothing’s missing, exactly, but since it was written in both mediums at the same time, I feel like I need to see the movie to perhaps flesh out some things.

From the cover of The Shape of Water:

It’s 1962, and Elisa Esposito – mute her whole life, orphaned as a child – is struggling with her humdrum existence as a janitor working the graveyard shift at Baltimore’s Occam Aerospace Research Center. Were it not for Zelda, a protective coworker, and Giles, her loving neighbor, she doesn’t know how she’d make it through the day.

Then one fateful night, she sees something she was never meant to see, the Center’s most sensitive asset ever; an amphibious man, captured in the Amazon, to be studied for Cold War advancements. The creature is terrifying but also magnificent, capable of language and of understanding emotions . . . and Elisa can’t keep away. Using sign language, the two learn to communicate. Soon, affection turns into love, and the creature becomes Elisa’s sole reason to live.

But outside forces are pressing in. Richard Strickland, the obsessed soldier who tracked the asset through the Amazon, wants nothing more than to dissect it before the Russians get a chance to steal it. Elisa has no choice but to risk everything to save her beloved. With the help of Zelda and Giles, Elisa hatches a plan to break out the creature. But Strickland is onto them. And the Russians are, indeed, coming.

Developed from the ground up as a bold two-tiered release – one story interpreted  by two artists in the independent mediums of literature and film – The Shape of Water is unlike anything you’ve ever read or seen.

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

sing unburied singSing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward
Contemporary Fiction (Magical Realism?)
290 pages
Published September 2017

I know, I’m late to the party. This book made a big splash back in September – everyone was talking about it, and it won the National Book Award. My library, however, did not have enough copies to go around, and I was late putting a hold on it, so the hold I put on it in January finally came around to my turn!

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward returns to the same neighborhood in Mississippi that Salvage the Bones was written about. (Two of the siblings from Salvage the Bones show up in a scene in Sing.) The story is told from three different viewpoints: Jojo, a thirteen-year-old boy and the main character of the novel, Leonie, his drug-addicted mother, and Richie, the ghost of a boy Jojo’s grandfather met in prison.

This book covers so much that it’s difficult to categorize – between discrimination and outright bigotry, bi-racial romance and children, drug addiction, poverty, prison life – deep south gothic, I suppose, would be the best description. Sing really only takes place over a couple of days, but it feels much longer, because Jojo’s grandfather tells stories of his time in prison decades prior, Leonie reminisces about high school, and there’s just this sense of timelessness over the entire novel.

It’s not an easy book. These are hard issues to grapple with, and too many people have to live with these issues. Poverty, bigotry, addiction – these things disproportionately affect the black community, and white people are to blame for the imbalance.

I’m not sure how I feel about the ghost aspect of the book; on one hand I feel like people will see the ghost and decide the book is fantasy – that they don’t really need to care about the problems the family faces. On the other hand, the ghost allows us to see even more bigotry and inhumanity targeted at black people. So it serves a purpose.

I’m not sure I like this book. But I’m glad I read it. And that’s pretty much going to be my recommendation; it’s not a fun read, but it’s an important one.

From the cover of Sing, Unburied, Sing

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.

His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an unforgettable family story.

Book Review: American War

americanwarAmerican War
by Omar El Akkad
Alternate Future Dystopia
333 pages
Published 2017

By now you probably know there are a few things I tend to enjoy in novels. Dystopias, Fantasies, Debut Novels, and Diversity tend to peak my interest, and American War is a dystopian debut novel by an Egyptian-Canadian author.

And it’s FANTASTIC.

El Akkad did an absolutely amazing job of weaving together the North/South rivalry of the US, climate change, the changing nature of energy generation, and US wars in the middle east to write an all-too-plausible novel about the US, seventy years from now.

Alternating between narrative chapters following his protagonist, and “historical documents” about the time period, he masterfully tells the story of how a terrorist is made. Because that’s what Sarat, his protagonist, is. Let’s make no bones about that. She is a terrorist. But she is a terrorist whose reasoning makes sense to us. Perhaps because the territories and the peoples are familiar to us, perhaps because we see how she grew up and what drove her to it – but the end result is a terrorist act on an unheard-of scale.

I’d like to think this book would make people look at refugees and terrorists in a new light – with more understanding and compassion and maybe with ideas to help actually combat the attitudes and circumstances that lead to terrorist acts. But I doubt it. I doubt this will change any minds that don’t already understand the underlying reasons.

My only quibble with this book is while he manages to weave together so many other issues facing our country right now, he doesn’t really wrap in racism. And I have a hard time believing our country is past racism 70 years from now.

I was very pleasantly surprised to find the protagonist is a bisexual, gender non-conforming woman of color. How awesome is that? And her bisexuality isn’t mentioned, it’s shown, her one on-screen sex scene (and it’s only barely on-screen) being with a woman. (She’s also attracted to a man in the book.)

The author was born in Egypt, grew up in Qatar, and lived in Canada, earning at least one award for his investigative reporting while working at The Globe and Mail. He’s one of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s 17 writers to watch this year, and I see why. American War is definitely one of my favorite books of 2017.

My other Read Canadian reviews:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. this book
7. Next Year, For Sure
8. That Inevitable Victorian Thing
9. All The Rage
10. The Clothesline Swing
11. Saints and Misfits
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. The Wolves of Winter

From the cover of American War:

In this fiercely audacious debut novel, Omar El Akkad takes us into a near future in which a politically polarized America descends into a second Civil War – and amid warfare, a family fights to survive.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the war breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, her home state is half underwater, and the unmanned drones that fill the sky are not there to protect her. A stubborn, undaunted, and thick-skinned tomboy, she is soon pulled into the heart of secessionist country when the war reaches Louisiana and her family is forced into Camp Patience, a sprawling tent city for refugees. There she is befriended by a mysterious man who opens her eyes to the injustices around her and under whose tutelage she is transformed into a deadly instrument of revenge.

Narrated by the one person privy to Sarat’s secret life, American War is a hauntingly told story of the immeasurable ruin of war – in a nation, a community, a family, an individual. It’s a novel that considers what might happen if the United States were to turn its most devastating policies and weapons upon itself.