I Play the Mermaid Song
Compulsive cross-dresser Richard has grown alienated from the conventional society of New Zealand. He has lived between two worlds – his public face of Richard the violinist, and his inner heart of Nora. He must peel off his past and his disguises, the patchwork of deceits and shadows that he has built up. But when he unpicks the threads of convention, music, and fantasy, what will be left? More
This is not a fantasy book about mermaids. The 'mermaid' symbolises people who do not fit in society. They are people who have confused sexual identity and who consequently feel isolated and inhibited. Mermaids are creatures at home in the sea. They are ungainly and out of place on land, always seeking for their stolen skin, that will return them to their real selves. Their songs of lament lure sailers onto rocks.
This is a lyrical novel dealing with difficult themes. It is written in the form of the autobiography of Richard, a likeable character who was once a well-known fiddler and performer. Richard has a secret life, represented by the inner voice of Nora, that compels him sometimes to dress and think as a female.
His story starts with his birth in a little thatched cottage in a village in England. His family migrate to New Zealand in slightly mysterious circumstances. At university in Wellington he resolutely keeps a cap on Nora during the day, as he becomes increasingly well-known as a fiddler, but by night she frees herself and intrudes in his clumsy first attempts at affairs. He develops new friends in the shadowy world of gays and transsexuals. He is ‘outed’ unexpectedly at his 21st birthday party, and has to face up to the burden of living his life with his split identity.
Richard starts a theme restaurant with friends. As Leonora the fiddler he finds a safe way to give expression to his secret self, but still he finds his confused sexuality means that he can’t develop satisfactory long-term relations. The only one who fulfils his ambiguous desires is Katie, a petite librarian awaiting a sex-change operation, and similarly lonely and isolated. When Katie rejects his love and instead engages in a marriage with the sea, Richard is devastated.
Increasingly Richard finds that there is little reassurance in his past, and that he has been putting on different disguises to hide who he really is. He is no closer to resolving the mysteries of his sexual ambiguities, and his gradual rejection of his music as a creative force.
Richard must learn to embrace what he realises is his true heritage, the ancient song of sea and storm. He must peel off his past, his disguises, the elaborate patchwork of lies and deceits and shadows that he has built up. He must lose both Richard and Nora, and all the trappings of his life. Only then will he find his true skin.
The book develops like a weaving or tapestry, with the warp of the past and the weft of Richard’s growing understanding of his own ‘skin’. It moves back and forward from the past to the present, as Richard’s understanding and resolution builds. It explores issues of cross-dressing, as well as sexual and gender identity, but those are not the main themes, which concern the subjective nature of history, processes of death and rebirth, and the way people are trapped by social conventions.
The style of writing is lyrical, which means that the book needs to be read in a leisurely way, taking delight in the landscapes and absurd situations that the characters engender. It is a book for the emotions, of love, loss, sadness and reconciliation.
“It is the story of personal identity in a tug-of-war with the prescriptions of a conformist society, with an interweaving musical theme. Most serious readers will find the book’s subject matter fascinating terra nova, studded with flashes of recognition from their personal experience...This book is an untidy medley, like a real life, held together by meandering threads which cross and re-cross with vari-sized holes between them. Yet the author’s love of, and adeptness with, the English language gives the fabric its substance and texture, by the end constructing a coherent tapestry. Accurate and original word use, vivid characterisation, a minute and acute sense of place, comedy, farce, and tragedy, are there in abundance.” (from a review by Karen Butterworth Peterson)
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