Yet traditional fairy stories are rooted in oral folklore, and more often than not they're aimed at adult sensibilities. Disney's simple, saccharine The Little Mermaid, for example, contains only the most superficial resemblance to the intricate, gloomy Hans Christian Andersen story on which it's based.
Samantha Hunt's first novel, The Seas—which is also, in its own unique way, about a little mermaid—has much more in common with Hans Christian Andersen than with Disney. There isn't a single singing crab, for example, in Hunt's story, nor are there any song and dance numbers penned by either Elton John or Randy Newman.
The novel stars an unnamed 19-year-old woman who's trying to find a place for herself in her dreary northern coastal hometown. One of the many reasons the town is so dreary is that eight years earlier her father walked straight into the ocean and hasn't been seen since. This doesn't stop either the young woman or her lonely deserted mother from spending a lot of their spare time at the beach, waiting for the main man in their lives to miraculously walk back out of the waves again.
The young woman hates everything in the town but the beautiful dangerous ocean. Loving all things watery, she comes to feel out of place on dry land. Her dad once told her that they both came from the ocean, and that she is a mermaid. It's unclear whether or not he meant this seriously, but the young woman takes it as absolute truth. Embracing this personal myth helps her endure an otherwise unbearable life.
Shortly after her father disappeared, she fell in love with a moody alcoholic fisherman named Jude, who is 14 years her senior and resembles her lost father in many disturbing ways. Jude goes off to fight the war in Iraq and comes back a damaged man. As her efforts to get him to fall in love with her repeatedly go awry, the young woman becomes more and more mermaid-like until her fantasy eventually threatens to tear down everyone and everything around her.
The Seas is an impressive debut. Hunt succeeds in bringing a taste of the folkloric to the modern world. At its best, her descriptive writing achieves the lyrical quality of prose poetry. She's especially good at finding just the right words to convey the young woman's dangerous attraction to the ocean. She's also done quite a nice job of crafting the character of Jude. Throughout the novel he remains both mysterious and admirable.
Less satisfying is Hunt's ineffective gimmick of inserting dictionary definitions into her story. The young woman's grandfather is a crank whose pet project is a giant dictionary that no one expects will ever be completed. The inclusion of this character gives Hunt an excuse to inject a bunch of inappropriate linguistic musings into her story that largely seem forced. Sadly, this ultimately culminates in an ending that seems much too pat. This taints an otherwise fine novel.
The Seas' biggest strength is that it has the aura of a contemporary fairy tale told in the first person. Hunt's greatest achievement is that she captures some of the brutality and magic of old-time folk stories. If you're looking for a cheery and-they-lived-happily-ever-after ending, or if you have a special fondness for wise-cracking crabs, go to Blockbuster and rent Disney's The Little Mermaid. It's freakin' adorable. If you're looking for something a little more bitter and angry, a little more poetic, a little more Danish, The Seas might be worth a dip.