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Sailor Twain, Or The Mermaid in the Hudson by Mark Siegel – review
Typically, when one thinks of mermaids, one thinks of the sailors on long journeys across open oceans and exotic ports of call. The only mermaid that comes to mind in conjunction with the United States of America is that great flim-flam the Feejee Mermaid. This doesn’t mean that the idea of an American mermaid is completely out of the question; it’s just not a possibility I’d considered for much of any length of time. Sometimes, serendipity does happen, and you manage to discover something you never even realized you’d wanted until you pick up a book and start reading it.
Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel is printed in a standard hardcover size with a lovely dust jacket. Once opened, it’s revealed to be a graphic novel. This is a format that may take some readers by surprise, particularly those (like me) who are more familiar with graphic novels being printed in a larger size that is better suited for busy panels and fonts that might otherwise end up looking ridiculously small. The size of the pages does not hinder reading Sailor Twain in any way, I’d just like to start by saying that. The fonts and the drawings are executed in a style that is both clean and atmospheric, a balancing act I’d have never thought possible until I saw it achieved.
Captain Twain oversees the steamboat Lorelei, which is owned by a French nobleman named Lafayette. Lafayette came into possession of the steamboat due to the death of his brother. And, where Lafayette’s brother was a well-regarded businessman, Lafayette himself is chiefly regarded as a frivolous Casanova who would be nowhere without the help of the competent people hired by his brother. Twain gets along with his employer, even if he disagrees with much of Lafayette’s lifestyle.
While sailing down the Hudson river, Lafayette becomes both increasingly mysterious and seemingly more hedonistic. He pursues women with absolutely no regard and just enough discretion to keep him out of trouble. He also becomes enamored of the works of a reclusive author by the name of C. W. Beaverton. Twain discovers this when he’s asked to purchase the author’s latest book while on shore, since Lafayette must stay aboard the Lorelei to see to his many paramours.
During the trip on the river, Twain also finds something remarkable. He pulls an injured mermaid from the water. She appears to have been harpooned. Twain decides to nurse her back to health and, in doing so, sets events into motion beyond anything he could have possibly imagined. He’ll discover the truth behind the changes in Lafayette, he’ll get to meet C. W. Beaverton, and he’ll find out what it’s like to fall under the spell of a mermaid.
Siegel incorporates both history and folklore into the story seamlessly. There’s a sense of stateliness that seems to be implied by the idea of steamboat travel, and when the steamboat depicted is so obviously a luxury model, the story takes on an air of historical elegance. Stories of mermaids by necessity must be steeped in myth, and Siegel’s version offers variations on ideas that range between common place and entirely original. Sailor Twain doesn’t just involve human folklore, as there’s a real sense that both the river and her denizens have their own folklore to impart.
The drawings are done with charcoal pencil, with the characters rendered in deceptively simple linework. Each character is entirely distinctive and has unique features, which is all the more impressive considering how minimal the drawings of them really are. The backgrounds of each panel are soft and a little bit smeary, a choice that’s clearly deliberate because of the atmosphere it imparts to the story. Everything shown in the panels is easy to decipher – chairs look like chairs, wallpaper looks like wallpaper – but there’s a dreamlike, foggy quality to those drawings. It’s like being told a fairy tale surrounded by the morning steam rising from a river. In short, it’s perfection.
Sailor Twain didn’t take me long to read. I am not ashamed in the slightest to say it only took about two lunch hours. I wanted to know where the story was going, I wanted to see what was going to happen to the characters, and I wanted to know if and how everything was going to be resolved. I devoured this book, which is easy to do, largely because of the format and the uncomplicated style of the art.
It’s a beautiful book because it does exactly what the author intended it to do. The story is haunting and melancholy, but well worth the read because it’s such a magnificent example of tone. The artwork suits the language suits the story. It’s a fairytale for the adult set, the kind of tale that warns against wanting those things that you can never have to the extent that you forsake the things you already have. The magic of it is that it does so in such a way that it doesn’t feel forced or trite.
The drawings do contain some nudity, and there is some sex involved in the plot. It’s not excessive or horrifyingly graphic, but it is absolutely there. Readers should be aware of that before they embark on this particular journey. However, if you like historical fantasy or mermaid stories or, really, fairy tales in general, then Sailor Twain has all of that and more.