Carolyn Turgeon has followed up 2017’s The Faerie Handbook with The Mermaid Handbook: An Alluring Treasury of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects (2018), a similarly-themed and -structured guide to mermaid folklore throughout history and around the world, along with stunningly-photographed examples of modern mermaid couture, particularly the bespoke mermaid tails available in a range of colors and styles. And if readers are interested in mermaid-themed cocktails, snacks, or tablescapes for parties, this beautifully-crafted book provides tips and recipes to get anyone started down the right path.
This collection is more about the half-woman, half-fish mermaid concept than anything else, so there’s little about mythical shape-shifting and water-dwelling creatures like selkies, but Turgeon provides a surprising breadth of information about diverse mermaids around the world: readers can learn about Mami Wata, “a recognized mythical figure throughout much of Africa … with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish;” the ben-varrey native to the Isle of Man, along with several other Celtic stories of sea-women; Japanese ningyo “with a monkey’s mouth … shining gold scales, and a lovely voice;” and many others.
Throughout recorded history, the mermaid in her various forms tends to typify forbidden, dangerous aspects of female sexuality. Mermaids are usually portrayed as lissome young women with flowing locks and long, scaled tails in simple hues of blues and greens, though more and more modern interpretations take inspiration from the dazzling colors of ocean fauna. There’s often an element of seduction along with their otherworldliness, as mermaids and sirens are frequently conflated into an image of a sea-faring enchantress who lures unwise sailors and landlubbers to a watery doom.
As a result, The Mermaid Handbook focuses almost entirely on female versions of merpeople, with very few representations of their male counterparts; the subjects of various featured paintings and living models are almost exclusively women, while the artists themselves are generally men. The few exceptions are haute couture designers like Alexander McQueen and Jean-Paul Gaultier, and then there’s The Mertailor, Eric Ducharme, photographed wearing one of his custom tails along with three female models. Ducharme’s talent is impressive, and I would have liked to see more examples of men who engage in mer-themed cosplay and design. There are too many amazing examples of female models and designers to mention, though the work of Abby and Bryn Roberts’ Finfolk Productions, and Raven Sutter’s Merbella creations, are particularly eye-catching.
I especially enjoyed the lengthy discussion of real-life mermaids, women capable of underwater acrobatics and balletics well into what would be considered their golden years. Their athleticism and grace can’t be overstated, and I encourage readers to seek out more information about Annette Kellerman, “the first mermaid,” played by Esther Williams in 1952’s Million-Dollar Mermaid; Vicki Smith, “the oldest working mermaid … who recently celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of her first mermaid show;” and environmental activists like Hannah Fraser, who was featured in The Cove, and Virginia Hankins, who was also “the first female knight at the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire,” and who has her very own suit of armor in addition to custom mermaid tails. And the discussions of mermaids in film ranged as far and wide as 1948’s Miranda, 1984’s Splash, and Disney’s beloved animated feature loosely adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale.
Readers who are hoping to spot a mermaid in the wild will find them in surprising places, whether in Florida’s famous Weeki Wachee Springs, which still holds mermaid training camps each year, or in landlocked Great Falls, MT’s Sip ‘n Dip Lounge. And if something a little closer to home is more your style, recipes for edible sea glass, a “Seductive Siren Cocktail,” and both ceviche and poke are on hand. Every recipe and craft suggestion is kept fairly simple and accessible, without requiring too much in the way of hard-to-find items or high levels of crafting skill. I would expect that the frustration factor is kept relatively low, as a result, and hot-gluing shells in an intricate pattern for a Sailor’s Valentine is about as daunting as things get in The Mermaid Handbook. (There are no patterns provided for a neoprene-and-spandex tail, thankfully.)
I happily recommend The Mermaid Handbook for anyone who’s enchanted by mermaids, especially anyone who might have spent their childhood swimming lessons pretending to be possessed of a colorful, sinuous tail rather than two legs. This collection was tremendously fun to read through, and I know I’ll be paging through it again for one reason or another for a while to come.