Review by Hira Peracha
Penguin Random House, November 2021
309 pages, paperback, $24.99 CAD, 978-0-593-12094-1
Ages 12+, Grades 7+
Young Adult, Fantasy
My stomach twists as I think back to what Yemoja told me just days ago. All that you need to do, all that you must do, is to gather any souls of those who pass in the sea, and we will say a prayer to ease them on their inevitable journey back to Olodumare. This is your purpose. Nothing more, nothing less.
I was supposed to glean the boy’s soul, not his body. This was impressed upon me and I agreed. But he was alive. Should I have waited until he passed? Swum in the trails of his blood while his lungs filled with water?
Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen is a mystical story inspired by West African mythology. Simidele, a 17-year-old Mami Wata (or mermaid), has one purpose in life: to guide the souls of those who die at sea and bless their journey back to the Supreme Creator, Olodumare. But when Simi comes across the barely-alive body of a boy around her age, Adekola or Kola, she decides to go against her duties and save him. The consequences of her actions put the other Mami Wata at risk. Simi must plead with Olodumare to make amends — or else the Mami Wata may cease to exist.
The powerful deity, Yemoja, is the creator of all Mami Wata. Simi was once a human and her transition to Mami Wata not only gave her otherworldly powers, but consumed the memories she once held as a human, severing her ties to the world of humans beyond the sea. Yet Simi still has a connection to her humanity, holding onto slivers of memories of her mother and of her past. This, though, is not what the Mami Wata do – they are to let their memories seep away into the ocean and focus on the ancient decree that their Mother Yemoja has trusted them to do.
Due to the little memories Simi still carries from her past, she enjoys being in her human form as it strengthens her bond to her humanness. Because of this, we see Simi engage in a battle of morals when she comes across Kola’s body at the brink of death. She has a choice: to stick to her task and the reason for her existence, or to save a human from the grasp of death. She chooses the latter, and this choice establishes and solidifies Simi’s beliefs and character for the events yet to come in her story. Within the present story of Simi and Kola, Bowen weaves in snippets of Simi’s past, highlighted with the use of a different font. These sections get longer and more specific as the story evolves. In my reading, the increasing length and description of these memories correspond with Simi regaining more humanness. These flashbacks give an abrupt change in pace and interrupt the flow of present story – the effect giving the reader a taste of the battle between mermaid and human within Simi’s mind.
Simi is not the only well-rounded character in the novel. Surprisingly, Yemoja, who is not a major character, is also well-developed, deep, and layered. Yemoja’s past and her intentions when creating the Mami Wata are compelling, though limited – I would have liked more of her character in the story. At first, Yemoja came across as a powerful being with no faults – an authoritarian and unforgiving powerhouse. But she’s more intriguing than she first appears, doing unexpected things like withholding anger to solve problems and helping Simi rather than leaving her to fix things by herself. Yemoja also is shown putting some blame for Simi’s faults on herself rather than condemning Simi. Yemoja holds a motherly quality – an unexpected side to a deity.
Skin of the Sea is a beautiful story that incorporates West African mythology, fantastical beings like yumboes and bultungin, adventure, and a hint of romance. Bowen’s novel touches on dark topics in history like slavery but also highlights the power and beauty of African culture, tradition, and lore. Although there are aspects that are reminiscent of The Little Mermaid, Bowen incorporates mature themes, twists, and an unexpected ending that make her novel a refreshing new depiction of mermaids.
Hira Peracha is a graduate from the Psychology and Creative Writing programs at the University of British Columbia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction and poetry.