Alone in an unforgiving, sometimes-fantastical landscape, Malin Reed is on a journey in search of a mythical mother in this pungent early novel, newly available in the U.S., from acclaimed British writer Baker (Offcomer, 2014, etc.).
“[B]orn to a fishwoman and a ferryman, I was, I always had been, different.” So speaks friendless Malin, a self-styled freak whose gender Baker deftly conceals until a late, incontrovertible plot development. Malin’s miserable life in an undefined corner of England, in perhaps the early 19th century, shifts, after the ferryman’s death, from the nontender care of a grandmother to drudgery in the service of a brutish pub landlord. But flashes of magic light up Malin’s landscape—the passing visit of a circus; the arrival of a stranger at the pub who may be a swindler or a savior but who releases Malin into the larger world in search of mermaids. This long voyage of discovery includes time aboard a slave ship—one of the less convincing episodes in the tale—where Malin, now a sailor, finds a cross-dressing ally and also an enemy in the form of the captain. Flogged to ribbons, Malin escapes overboard, freeing the slaves on the way, only to be rescued by an eccentric librarian, alone on another vessel with his rare books. Icebergs, pirates, slavery—the thrills keep coming, with Malin sliding from one peril to another, sometimes using sex as a bargaining tool. Rescued by yet another circus, Malin learns not only a new skill—tightrope walking—but also something that will eventually bring the long, circular journey to a fitting end.
Weakened by its monotonous structure but propelled by luminous detail and Malin’s determination, this novel is not Baker at her strongest, but the promise is evident.