I was somewhat dubious about a Young Adult book featuring mermaids...our underwater sisters seem so much more at home in Middle Grade fiction, picture books and fairy tales, so I was unsure whether or not they could make the jump into YA. Turns out they can and just haven't had the chance yet. Enter Lorali.
The book starts with Rory moodily nursing a bag of chips and brooding on the beach over his dad's abandonment of him and his mum. It's his 16th birthday and in the past his dad would've be there too, sharing some chips and a can of larger. Not any more. Rory's 16th is different in another respect too- he discovers a naked girl under the pier, huddled up but still alive; mute and fragile. That's a new one.
Gobsmacked, suddenly responsible and without any other immediate plan, Rory gives the girl his clothes and smuggles her back to his mum's house, convinced she's some sort of traumatised runaway. Gradually she thaws, begins talking, demonstrates boundless enthusiasm for cake and raw butter. When Rory finds her swimming in his neighbour's pond, he begins to wonder who this girl really is and where she came from. Drawing a blank, he takes her to his friend Finn and his loopy granddad in their lighthouse home, desperate to hide her and keep her safe, Rory is just looking to share his burden. What he gets in a lot of answers and an impossible conclusion. Lorali is a surfaced mermaid and Finn's granddad, Iris, is very much a land-based expert in the Mer folk. Who knew?
What starts off as a literal fish out of water story becomes a tale of desperate first love and the events that conspire to keep Lorali and Rory apart; greed, revenge, pirates. The pirates. I loved the Ablegares so much- for supporting characters they were so vividly drawn and so insanely out of place in 21st century Hastings. I loved how proud and hearty the 5 brothers were and the sections of the book in which they appear take on a weird Captain Hook via All Saints vibe that is totally unique. It's a joy to get to know Lorali as she experiences everything for the first time (sleep, wearing clothes, seeing herself with dry hair) and as she starts to establish her place in the World. It's just the right amount of inspired by Ariel, but entirely and unmistakably its own thing. In many ways Lorali experiences the same things as any non-Mermaid teenager; first love, confusion, not knowing where she belongs in the grand scheme of things. Under water she's always been told she is special, a miracle. Now she is the same as everybody else and she feels at home at last.
There are some new elements to Mer lore that I've not encountered before that I thought Dockrill wove into the narrative beautifully; the idea that Mer are not born but 'salvaged' as drowning victims deemed worthy of a second chance, that their tails are actually tapestries that tell their stories, their personalities and interests and that when they become Mer they lose their memories of life on land. The reader finds out more about the Mer people, and about Lorali and her past as the book progresses, and we eventually learn what drove the daughter of the Mer Queen out of the Sea and into Rory's life.
Lorali is an unusual book, not only because of its as-yet-unbroken magical creature territory, but in its style and approach too. Dockrill's prose is so adaptable and multi-functional, capable of any challenge or task. She demonstrates her range brilliantly- there's tenderness and brutality, violence and beauty. I loved how sensory some passages were, particularly when Lorali experiences flavours and sensations for the first time, it's so immediate and visceral. I loved the contrast between Rory's resigned and self-deprecating style, a teen with no plan and no prospects that's just winging it and Lorali, who's brand new. Full of secrets and pain and confusion, she is lost in this new world but overjoyed to have found Rory to guide her through. Her chapters are narrated with such fire and bravery and sheer nerve that it's impossible to not love her immediately.
I loved that the Sea narrated some chapters too, the pages splodged with moisture. Her ancient, lyrical voice added amazing depth and age to the story, filling in the parts that characters did not witness, providing both a location, an opinion and a beautifully enthralling narrative voice. It seems that on and in the Sea, time doesn't really exist, there are no ages. Pirates and sea monsters still roam the waves, the Mer stay at the age they were when salvaged...after all, we have explored more of the Moon than the Deep Sea, so who knows?
I think it's fairly safe to say that I adored this book for a lot of reasons. For its prose, for its characters, for its daring to open up a whole new underwater world to the YA readership. Its little digs ar patriachy and the materialistic celeb lifestyle. I like that LD was ballsy enough to deny a traditional happy ending (will say no more). It's been vampires and dystopias for so long it was genuinely a refreshing surprise to read something that's out there on its own, the first of a new kind of YA. Excellent.
If you liked this, I would also recommend Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley which uses similar fantastical themes; another unknown, hidden race, a narrator leaving one world for another and hleaving her old life behind, the love interest that can never be and the wry, relateable narrative style. Go read it because it's also very good