Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sarah Porter: Lost Voices

I've been reading a great deal of young adult fantasy recently, as it's the kind of work I enjoyed when I was a girl, and I've been curious to see what's out there. Overall, I've found my reading enjoyable, but nothing has really captured my imagination or really rented out space in my consciousness. With the exception of Carrie Ryan's intelligently and beautifully written zombie novels, I've been left a little cold. Don't get me wrong - I did love The Hunger Game books, but I began to feel a little emotionally beaten up by them, and I know if I had read them when I was, say, twelve, they might have been too much. But perhaps I'm projecting. I think I might be more sensitive now, than when I was actually in middle school.

Which brings me to Sarah Porter's Lost Voices. As always, my disclaimer: Sarah is a friend. But the rave you are about to read is genuine.

In this first book of what I happily understand is a trilogy, she tells the story of a girl named Luce who lives in a coastal fishing community in Alaska. Her parents are dead, her mother died years before and her father was lost at sea. After a peripatetic life with her beloved vagabond father, she lives with a drunken, brutal uncle and life is grim indeed. After a possible death (or something like it), Luce finds herself in the sea, a mermaid, along with a tribe of other young girls, all of whom have had ugly lives and even uglier deaths. They do what mermaids traditionally have always done: they sing, and they lure ships to their doom. Luce finds a place for herself with her fellow mermaids, whose queen Catarina becomes her friend, mentor and, subsequently, inadvertent rival.

There were so many things in this book that really hit me at a deep level, and I'll likely go into some of them in embarrassing detail in this post. Here's the thing: Sarah is a poet. She just is. Her prose is evocative and gorgeous, and emotionally this story just cut me to the bone. I think she pretty much did everything right. Luce felt very much like a real girl to me. In so many books for young people, the protagonist is portrayed as "loner" or an "outsider", as this is the way so many young people feel even if this wasn't so much the case. It's a little bit of a pet peeve of mine that fictional characters recover from outsiderhood with such apparent ease, their former loneliness not leaving any scars or behavior patterns. They change circumstance, suddenly find friends and they actually, like, know how. Luce is so much more herself than many fictional characters.

In school, Luce is quiet and finds herself nearly paralyzed with social awkwardness. Upon becoming a mermaid this doesn't precisely change. She is thrilled to find herself accepted and embraced by a tribe of other girls. She also finds she has a particular talent for singing: the beautiful, alluring and deeply treacherous voice of the siren. But Luce isn't particularly used to playing with others - she's a good person, just used to being alone, which as I've so often learned to my chagrin, is much, much simpler. But that's not the way the world works: there are so many complicated social nuances, and among the teenage, social rules are strict and harsh - and these mermaids are perpetually teenaged, a horror movie concept if I've ever heard one.

There are so many interesting facets to this story, and Sarah has them all covered. So many of them have to do with the very nature of both mermaidhood and femaleness and the places in which these things overlap. Essentially, mermaids are killers, mass murderers. This is monstrous and horrifying from a human point of view, but mermaids are out of the world, it doesn't mean the same thing to them. But, still. And this forms a large part of Luce's impossible dilemma. She also asks, "Why only girls?". There's also the question of outsiderhood, and damage which lies at the heart of the story. When the terrifying mermaid Anais joins the tribe, Luce's fragile place within her new family is snatched from her. Anais is an amazing creation. She might be the most realistic mean girl I've ever encountered in fiction. Just reading about her sent bolts of anxiety through me in a very deep place I didn't think even existed within me anymore.

There's a very long history of monstrous females in myth and fairy tales. Baba Yaga, Lamia, Medusa, all the wicked mothers and witches and scheming servant girls in stories like The Juniper Tree and The Goose Girl, and, of course, the sirens themselves. And there's Anderson's The Little Mermaid, a story that as a child I found so sad it was almost unbearable. This book knows all of this, and is informed and enriched by these universal tales that form so much of who we are as a people. All these strange and sometimes evil and outsider women beginning with Eve. Luce is essentially a gentle soul who is thrust into the role of siren which is heady and confusing and upsetting and, all things considered, maybe not all it's been cracked up to be.

Sarah Porter also blogs at YA Outside the Lines, and a while ago she posted a great piece about dark subject matter in young adult fiction in which she writes:
Why would I feel the need to protect kids from an awareness of that human darkness with which they are perfectly familiar already, which haunts their imaginations and in some cases their lives?

Instead I felt responsible to be as honest as I could about the ways of getting through the darkness. Young teens are often in the process of confronting the worst aspects of humanity, and of struggling to come to terms with what it means to be a part of a species that perpetrates cruelty so routinely. Only by regarding that horror directly can they begin to withstand it.
I think she answers a certain kind of critic very well. I've started to write a bit about how I've gotten tired of dystopia, but maybe what I'm tired of is how manipulated into feeling awful I am by cheap narrative tricks. I'm totally okay with the darkness, but I want it to be earned. Lost Voices isn't a dystopian novel, but it is very dark, but it feels achingly and wonderfully real, I swear I could taste the salt water as I read.

Lost Voices's official release date is July 4th. BREAKING: Lost Voices is apparently available NOW.

Her lovely website is Sarah's Watery Den.

Below, the preview video created by her publishers (fancy!)

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