cover image The Mermaids Singing

The Mermaids Singing

Lisa Carey. William Morrow & Company, $22 (257pp) ISBN 978-0-380-97674-4

This impressive first novel spans three generations of women and two continents while addressing several complex issues related to mother-daughter relationships, spiritual displacement and cultural identity. In the 1950s, teenage Cliona leaves her home, a small island on the west coast of Ireland called Inis Muruch (the Island of Mermaids), and emigrates to America where, while planning to study to be a nurse, she works as a maid for a Boston family. An unwanted pregnancy thwarts her career plans and proves the first of several such events in this novel. Grace, Cliona's daughter, grows up in America but returns to the island as a teenager, experiencing as much trauma in arriving on the isle as her mother did in leaving it. Rejecting her mother's homeland, Grace returns to the U.S. with her own daughter, Grainne, and cuts all family ties. But patterns are repeated generationally like waves on each respective Atlantic shore, and the links with the past prove binding. In a sensual story of first loves, fatal decisions and alienation, Carey skillfully infuses her heroines with individual generational traits while lending them the same dreams--of mermaids and the ancient pirate queen after whom both daughters are named. Through the alternating voices of Cliona, Grace and Grainne, we eventually understand the special and distinctive burdens each generation bears, as well as the repetitious tricks of fate that have driven them apart. Though the novel suffers from a certain schematic rigidity and a tendency toward melodrama, it is, in Carey's skilled hands, an absorbing story. Author tour. (May)