There can be a claustrophobia to first person narratives. Trapping readers entirely inside a stranger’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences is a foreign thing, something few novelists can accomplish with finesse.
Fortunately, Ailish Sinclair is a novelist with finesse.
The narrator, and our eyes in the world of The Mermaid and the Bear, is Isobell. A young woman escaping a dangerous fiancé by fleeing to a remote estate in Scotland with her brother and a friend. The setup for the narrative is simple enough—she is a fish out of water, a high born lady from London masquerading as a kitchen maid in a Laird’s castle with various new friends and rivals coming into her life as she and the readers explore this foreign land where Isobell has placed herself.
Like many “not a normal girl” heroines, Isobell loves reading, has a penchant for being alone in the woods, and has some difficulty settling into her new role, from ignorance of the work, if nothing else. She is also virginal, innocent enough that a bawdy joke about men and pipes flies over her head at one point.
This final trope, that of the virgin girl, is something of a sticking point for me, personally. There are times when blatant innocence in female characters gets fetishistic: the idea of the virgin who never entertained an impure thought. Who is beautiful and doesn’t realize it. Who is just waiting for the right man to awaken her passion.
A protagonist cliché that gets retold again and again in novels written for young women.
And in many novels, and in the hands of a less skilled storyteller, this would be the story of that virgin’s awakening. Her falling in love, and it would happily end with her in the marriage bed.
Sinclair’s The Mermaid and the Bear hits the marriage bed roughly halfway through, and then keeps going. Lovingly crafted and extensively researched, this is not the historical romance it was advertised as. There is romance, multiple love interests, breathless confessions dire circumstances that led to those confessions (again, well-worn tropes for those who frequent the historical romance genre), but at heart this is a story about women.
Women and the love they have for each other, not their love for men.
Women and the power they take for themselves, and the powers that abuse them.
Women and their faith.
This is a story about the women murdered by witch hunters, and about those who survived the witch trials.
And the trials are arduous. Isobell is no modern surgeon to describe the physical toll wrought in clinical detail. The intimacy of the first-person narrative makes her pain inescapable. Visceral. The 16th century was no time for the faint of heart, and during the trial, as in every thread of this novel, Sinclair’s research shows in brutal, effective detail.
This is a novel for the daring and for those who believe that the past can still speak through modern works- this is a necessary narrative.
A narrative about the hurt that can be given carelessly, and the pain that can be survived. A fairytale, and a myth, and a Shakespearean epic all rolled to one—The Mermaid and the Bear is a delight for those brave enough to tackle it.
5/5, would re-read most any day of the year.