Books Reviews

Novella upends ‘Little Mermaid’ story

Oakland, California, U.S.A. – Thanks to Disney, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen have remained with the Western psyche for centuries. Introduced to new generations with ubiquitous Disney lunch boxes and water bottles and persisting with every refurbished movie released, it’s hard to imagine the American childhood without the trademark movies and merchandise featuring anthropomorphic animals, moon-eyed maidens, and photogenic princes.

Andersen’s tales, however, have been reused and rewritten to the point of monotony, the original plot and characters of his stories watered down to pastel-colored fantasies.

In addition, many of Andersen’s redone stories hold false and discriminatory ideas that were deemed acceptable only a few decades ago and that consumers are still conditioned to view as normal.

A wave of more diverse media – much of which don’t actively address their predecessors’ flaws like blatant objectification, ableism (Captain Hook with his peg leg), and racism (the Eurocentric beauty ideals of the tiny nose and large doe-eyes) are only beginning to combat those problematic old ideas.

The quintessential tale of the little mermaid as told by Andersen and in Disney’s animation itself has many faults nestled into its framework. A beautiful, subtly sexualized teenage mermaid who sacrifices her tail and voice for a man, going through trials and tribulations to culminate her life story with marriage to the prince in the animated version, and dissolution into sea foam for the sake of the prince’s happy marriage with another woman in the original.

And of course, in the animated version, Vanessa, Ursula’s counterpart, acts as the seductress, the villainous Jezebel stealing the protagonist’s man.

The underlying message in the little mermaid’s story is that women are expected to sacrifice everything for men. The little mermaid gives up her tail, voice, and freedom to be more available for her prince. Their entire relationship is founded upon appearances, the shallowest of premises.

Their chemistry is non-existent. Overall, it’s a terrible role model for impressionable young children.

Dissecting the influential themes behind the funny, iconic movie may feel taboo, but is necessary to progress as a society and uproot normalized iniquity.

Thankfully, The Salt Grows Heavy redeems an overdone, spoiled concept by incorporating a Grimm-Brothers style grittiness and flipping subtly pervasive themes such as masculine dominance and the male savior syndrome into a poignant feminist retelling of an antiquated tale.

Set in a time period similar to Europe’s Medieval Ages, a tongueless mermaid and a plague doctor travel away from the ruins of a kingdom. After they encounter a cult of brainwashed children led by three surgeons who perform macabre surgeries and resurrections, the mermaid must explore her own limits and unleash the parts of herself kept locked away. 

Drawing inspiration from the Brothers Grimm, Khaw paints a vivid picture of two strangers, both unnatural creations of humans playing God, both with murky pasts and seeking the promise of a new life. 

The mermaid, who remains anonymous, embodies feminine tenacity and hunger.

She does not give up her life and tongue, as the men in the novella would rather portray it: her tongue is cut out and fed to her by the king’s court in order to assert dominance and ensure tameness, in a telling analogy of how womens’ voices are silenced by society.

She’s taken from the ocean, watches her sisters flayed alive in front of her, is treated as the king’s exotic sex pet and then gives birth to the reincarnation of her sisters, who devour the king alive. 

Yes, Khaw’s mermaid is beautiful, but in the luminous, otherworldly fashion of an anglerfish or deep-sea jellyfish – not of human constriction or craving. She and her other mermaid sisters and daughters are one pulsing monolith of feminine anger and hunger, bringing down cruel patriarchies together.

The plague doctor she travels with is not her knight in shining armor; instead, they are androgynous, a representation of fully human emotions and vulnerability in contrast to the mermaid’s cold practicality. It is the mermaid who saves herself as she’s prodded and cut open, the mermaid who sets the kingdom on fire and rides away. 

Khaw creates a brilliant portrait of a feminine-like creature who undergoes trauma and oppression perpetrated by the men in her life, but ultimately ruins them, just as they ruined her. She destroys everything with her community of vengeful sisters and starts over, transcending the usual human limitations of pain and weariness.

Just like so many women, she is pushed down, but like so many women, she rises again, not needing any savior other than herself. 

Khaw’s novella is a sharp, bright reminder of the toxic ideals instilled in modern media, where women are taught that the titillating novelty of their bodies is their only value, and that they need a man to save them and grant them purpose. The king is the confining patriarchy, the people who think they can govern and break women and get away with it (and often do).

The mermaid and her sisters and daughters are the women who overcome. The three surgeons’ cult are those who profit from inequality and the children those brainwashed into accepting and perpetuating injustice. They try to dissect the mermaid and Frankenstein her body, but she survives. She burns it down. She builds it anew. 

Initially, Khaw’s prose seems heavy and weighed down from her constant usage of obscure descriptors and terminology, but as the story progresses, it finds its flow and transitions to a poetic richness, loaded with Shakespearean depth and eloquence.

Khaw does not hesitate to write lurid scenes of dissection and anatomical destruction with copious detail. A gloomy, sinister aura pervades the novella, placing The Salt Grows Heavy well into the bounds of dark fantasy, but with modern overtones too applicable to the real world. And underneath the layers of gore and revenge lies a subtly incorporated romance, a touch of warmth in a brutal tale.

A dark, grim plot woven with sensuous prose and the memorable characters of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, this novella is exquisitely opulent and dark, a gleaming concoction of pearlescent scale, glimmering fin, and needle-like tooth.

Isabel Shen is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

Leave a Comment