Book Trends: Mermaids

Things in Jars: A Novel
The zeitgeist fascinates me. For example, how did two fictionalized versions of Mary Pinchot Meyer's diaries get published this year at roughly the same time? What was in the air, water, New York Times that got two (presumably disconnected) writers writing about the same thing?

Another example: a few years ago two novels came out about women who dressed as men to fight in the Civil War: I Shall Be Near You by Erin Lindsay McCabe and Neverhome by Laird Hunt. Around that time, too, Karen Abbot published Liar, Temptress, Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War that included an account of a woman who cross-dressed in order to fight.

I discovered yesterday another interesting trend: dead mermaids.

In 2018, Imogen Hermes Gower published The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, a novel that revolves around the discovery of a mermaid body and the subsequent exploration of what truly comprises value and who can determine that definition.

This month, Jess Kidd brings us Things in Jars, a historical novel with a modern-sounding title that collapses the distance between fact and fable. It involves the discovery of a dead mermaid and "what makes us human in inhuman times." This novel circles the same territory as Hancock, but it creates its own space. It is not a companion novel to Hancock or anything like a sequel, but it could be viewed as a continued exploration of similar material.

It's redundant and silly to say that "there is nothing new under the sun" and that "all stories have already been told." I think what is more interesting is to take a look at the deeper level: particularly in the case of historical fiction, a category in which all of these books fall, how do writers explore or elucidate in the safe space of the fictional past what we are most worried about in our present?


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