“Here is a story. Story it is…”
Billing Natasha Bowen’s Skin of the Sea (Random House 2021) as Children of Blood and Bone meets The Little Mermaid does it a bit of disservice; just because a book centers around Yoruba spirits (Orisa/Orisha) doesn’t mean it has to be compared to every other book that also pulls from West African mythology, and Skin of the Sea deserves so much more than surface comparisons.
The novel is set in the 1400s as slave ships make the dark and deadly journey through the Middle Passage. In the depths, Simi gathers the souls of the discarded and broken brown bodies tossed over the sides and carries them in her brilliant sapphire necklace to her maker, Yemoja, who will bless them prior to their final journey to Olodumare. Simi is a Mami Wata, one of seven, created by Yemoja to assist in gathering the abandoned souls. (She’s a mermaid with a mission.)
Simi doesn’t recall much of her life before Yemoja turned her into a Mami Wata, but memories of her mother and her father and the life she knew before come to her when she stands on two feet. She’s reluctant to completely give up those memories and clings to the humanness of her.
When the body of a young man sinks into the depths that are her domain, she is surprised to see he still lives. She has two options: wait for him to die and take his soul to Yemoja, or save him and beg forgiveness later. She chooses the latter, and her and Kola’s destinies become entwined.
Simi has unknowingly broken a rule that could result in the destruction of all Mami Wata. She is tasked with begging forgiveness of Olodumare, but she must find a way to speak with him directly as the trickster and messenger god, Esu, will not relay any messages on behalf of Yemoja and the Mami Wata. Kola has his own reasons for seeking out Esu and Olodumare.
While on their journey, the pair encounter yumboes, pale fairies, who assist them. One yam-sized fairy, Issa, serves as their guide. In addition to the yumboes, they also encounter other magic beings including the Ninka Nanka (a West African Nessie) and bultungin (shapeshifter/werewolf who can shift into a hyena).
As frequently seen in mythology and folklore, the art of storytelling plays a central part to the novel, and Esu has guarded his domain with a story that must be told correctly to pass. It’s perhaps my favorite part of the novel.
Skin of the Sea is a short, quick-paced read that can serve as an introduction to some of Yoruba’s well-loved figures, including Mami Wata and Oldumare. (And even Olukun, a dark and dangerous god chained to the ocean floor so as not to destroy the world – and a god that Simi makes a deal with. Let’s just say I’m certain he will factor into the second installment.) It’s well crafted, but some character development was sacrificed to keep that chaotic pacing that is integral to the story.
It’s not just “a black Little Mermaid” but if that is what gets someone to open the pages, then it’s a black Little Mermaid.
Read this book.