River Mermaid by Christy Goerzen

Review by Gigi Kang

Crwth Press, October 15 2021

368 pages, paperback, $13.95 CAD, 978-1-989724-10-1

Ages 13+, young adult


In my locker are photos of

seawood and driftwood spirals,

one hundred snowballs cradled between two trees,

office chairs scattered like autumn leaves through a forest.

Environmental art

and large-scale sculpture

make fireworks explode

on the right side of my brain.

Nils-Udo, Andy Goldsworthy, Ted Friesen.

I don’t care about their eyes

or their voices or their clothes –

it’s their talent I’m crushing on. (2)

Mercedes Stowell’s best friend Sandra is a movie lover who knows a John Hughes flick can solve any problem. They try to be like Ferris Bueller, but life makes them feel more like Cameron Frye. Between binge-watching, crushing on boys, and trying to pass classes, sixteen-year-old Mercedes lives a regular teenage life in River Mermaid. Except that her mother, Patrice, is a famous visual artist and her father, Paul, is an internationally recognized art dealer. Art is a family expectation, and Mercedes feels the pressure.

Told in first-person, present-tense, this verse novel is urgent as Mercedes faces a rejection from the Grade 11 program at Wildwood Fine Arts School, a no-longer-secret school crush, and a terminally ill parent. Further, form informs content as the poetry adds a fast-paced rhythm to all the triumphs and disappointments unfolding in a short period of time.

Goerzen’s free verse is appropriate for a young audience as it is uncomplicated and makes use of staple devices such as concrete imagery, caesura, and enjambment which act as guides to convey where Mercedes’ emotions ebb and flow. The stanzas are short—most of them under ten lines—with only a few words in each. Goerzen also introduces alternate media throughout the book, such as text chains, artist bios, and article excerpts.

When Mercedes is rejected from Wildwood at the beginning of the novel, she is left dispirited and decides to take a break from the art world. Due to this, Mercedes’ parents are cold, even cruel, after she pursues a “normal” life working in a café owned by Sandra’s parents. She begins to experience life like any other teenager, slightly distanced from the affluence and artistry she has always been surrounded by. But her parents begin to treat her as if she is delicate, hiding their art-related activities from her, and this dissatisfaction with Mercedes’ new course implies their view of the working class as inferior. While Mercedes’ frustration is expressed, there is little examination or justification of her parents’ alienating actions. Similarly, there is little encouragement from both parents. Instead of comforting Mercedes after the rejection, they grow distant. Ultimately, it is Mercedes’ own insatiable, inherent craving to create that enables her to make art that is pointedly meaningful. Due to this, Mercedes comes off as a forgiving person as she holds no grudges, but I was left with a sense of irritation at the fact that Patrice and Paul took no responsibility for their dismissiveness when their daughter was inspecting a life outside of art.

On the other hand, Sandra is a comfort and support throughout the novel who acts as a safe space for both Mercedes and readers. Likewise, Ellis, the dark-haired cute boy from math class, becomes a confidant. Through Ellis and Sandra, Goerzen incorporates teenage love and the frenzy that comes with it, as well as the stable warmth of friendship. The interactions with both characters leave Mercedes and readers empowered and hopeful.

More than once, I felt goosebumps from the care Goerzen evidently has for Mercedes. From giving her an unconditional sisterly love in Sandra, to allowing her to process grief in a way that is unique to her, Goerzen’s creation of Mercedes is well-rounded and idiosyncratic. Readers who enjoy John Green’s combination of comedic and heartfelt characters with uncertain and grievous situations will appreciate the same in River Mermaid. While there may be space to experiment further with poetic form in the novel and to acknowledge some of Patrice and Paul’s more problematic characteristics, it is still a novel that will leave readers feeling satisfied, hopeful, and especially caring toward Mercedes.

GiGi Kang is a Canadian writer studying English Literature and Creative Writing at UBC. She is a poet and also writes at LA-based creative platform and magazine The Luna Collective where she interviews creatives from around the world, and reviews latest music and film releases. Read more at gigikang.com.

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