June 5, 2023

Review: The Salt Grows Heavy

The Salt Grows Heavy The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The subgenre of fairy tale retellings/sequels is neither common nor easy to do. You have to be familiar with the previous stories and their various incarnations throughout history, and whether the original tellings were bloodier than the current ones, which is often the case. Finally, the author has to know if (as is also often the case) the original stories have been Disney-fied beyond recognition.

All of which is to say that this novella, a sequel to The Little Mermaid, is a continuation of that story that is beautifully written--and definitely drawing from the older, darker, bloodier tradition--with prose keen enough to make just about any writer sigh with envy. Just picking a random page and paragraph from the book:

A lie if there ever was one. But even if I had a voice with which to correct my companion, I would have said nothing. I bite down on my smile instead, straightening, aware of how I must look: transparent hair, translucent skin, lips red as arteries. Iridescent eyes, stained-glass oceans, so large that they are nearly alien, their breadth magnified by thick, sweeping lashes. With every hour that passes, every morsel of flesh to worm down my throat, I become closer to what I was, what I am: an inhuman thing wrenched from the maw of the sea.

This gorgeous prose extends throughout the entire book, and is worth reading slowly just to savor. But this being the aftermath of a Little Mermaid tale that does not end at all happily for the prince (the original short story from which this apparently sprang is reprinted at the end of the book, and The Salt Grows Heavy begins immediately afterward), the mermaid and her companion, the equally nameless Plague Doctor from the original story, leave her husband's ravaged kingdom to have an adventure of their own. This is a coming-of-age story, of sorts; an adventure, of sorts; and a love story, of sorts. It is also extremely gory, with loving details of skin, blood, intestines, viscera and such, so if you have an aversion to that, you absolutely should not read this. The lovely writing and well-drawn characters were worth it to me. It also doesn't outstay its welcome: the novella length was just right for this tale. This is one of the best things I have read so far this year.

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