An avant-garde author’s fantasy debut is exquisitely written but draining in its unrelenting ugliness.
Thirteen-year-old Sophie Swankowski dreams of leaving behind working-class poverty in dreary Chelsea, Mass., but for now seeks relief by deliberately inducing fainting spells. When her overstressed single mother finds out, Sophie is exiled for the summer to her grandmother’s business, the town dump. That’s when things start to get strange: A foulmouthed, hard-nosed mermaid appears in her dreams. A flock of pigeons falls in love with her. And a mysterious glass artist reveals that Sophie is destined to become an empathetic messiah, purifying humanity of hatred and despair. Tea’s prose is lush and hallucinatory, occasionally producing scenes of gorgeous wonder and tenderness, but mostly it serves to depict the rotten, filthy, toxic nastiness of Chelsea and its denizens. All the major characters—saintly, villainous or trapped in between—are female; the few men are both repulsive and ineffectual. Nearly half the narrative is a string of episodes in which the third-person perspective switches from character to character rapidly, evoking disgust and contempt rather than horror or pity. (The lumpy pen-and-ink illustrations don’t help.) The story only takes flight as Sophie finally learns more about her heritage (with fascinating allusions to Eastern European legends), while growing in compassion and magical strength—but the putrid corruption around her offers no possibilities for cathartic triumph or healing, just the ambiguous hope of escape.
The ornate literary style and grim themes make this read more like a story about adolescence for adults than one aimed at actual teens. (Magical realism. 12 & up)