A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow

A really fabulous idea, lots of potential but awkward execution. For a book that is ostensibly about Tavia, a young woman recently relocated from LA to Portland, and her bestie, Effie, there’s an awful lot here that has nothing to do with plot. Tavia is a siren, a non-mythical but closeted species (?) and Effie is her bestie who is wrestling with demons of her own. Narrative is first person and trades back and forth between the two as they go from their shared home with Tavia’s parents, their high school and Effie’s swim practice.

I picked this up thinking the premise was amazing. I mean, a little obvious, but brilliant. The power of voices, right? And while I didn’t know Effie was the swimmer, not Tavia, there’s still a water connection. As I read more about the book, it turns out that it is a thinly-veiled allegory for women’s voices within the BLM movement and the tensions there. I didn’t reach far enough for that to get through, although I did notice there is a rather explicit and prevalent amount of racial teaching in the first few chapters.

Still, none of that is a problem for me. What’s a problem is the writing. Oh, the writing. I don’t know if I can explain how disjointed this is. It is as if a young teen vomited her life onto a page and turned it in for grading. Here’s a bit from page 30 about Tavia in her chorus group at school:

“‘Whatcha watching?’…[two paragraphs of explanation of the non-history between the two girls. Literally—they just grew apart so they don’t have any intimate connection, for better or worse].
‘Hair vid,’ I say because no one in this room, or maybe the entire IB track, would know Camilla Fox’s name.
‘What’s a hair video?’ one of the Jennifers asks, and both of them join Altruism behind me.
‘It’s a video tutorial that teaches you how to do your hair,’ I answer while we all stare down at Camilla, who’s talking about how she got two perfectly symmetrical braided buns while wearing rainbow overall shorts over a flowy-sleeved crop top.
Ugh. She’s so dope.
‘That’s wild.’ It’s a Jennifer again. ‘I didn’t know people needed to be taught how to do their own hair.’
‘That’s because all of mainstream media has been a white-girl hair tutorial all of your life,’ Allie says. ‘It’s invisible to you.’
‘Wait, is that for real?’ A symphony of bangles chime before a finger jabs in from behind me and accidentally pauses the video. ‘She legitimately has millions of subscribers! She’s famous!’
‘Yeah.’ I unpause it. ‘She’s kind of a big deal.’
‘I’ve never even heard of her!’
This is apparently really mind-bending for the Jennifers, but I refuse. I’m not up for educating anyone on how many things exist that they don’t know about or support, even if we are basically friends. Camilla Fox time is me time.
I scroll down to ‘like’ the video and leave a supportive comment, but I immediately regret it.
The comments section that’s always been the happy exception to the never-read-the-comments rule is bursting at the seams. It’s always a hub for conversation and generally gassing each other up (while of course giving all praise to Camilla, too (but the huge bricks of text and deep threading of replies has nothing to do with her hairdo or her outfit or the product she briefly reviewed.
I can feel the three girls breathing behind me, and I wish I’d listened to my father. I scroll faster, hoping they won’t see the name, but it’s everywhere, no matter how far down I go.

Rhoda Taylor.
Rhoda Taylor.
Rhoda Taylor.
 
‘They’re doing minute-to-minute updates from the courthouse now,’ Allie says, almost gently. However loudly we were all speaking before, it’s like this new subject is sensitive and she knows it.”

 

This is not far in the book–page thirty–and yet I found myself stumbling. So much awkward. Why does wearing rainbow overalls affected the symmetry of the buns? Who believes girls anywhere don’t learn beauty tips by Youtube? Why has this teen decided “educating others about all the things they don’t know” is a thing (clearly, her voice is that of a much older person). Why does the author think she needs to describe how Youtube comments look? Why would Allie say a racially sensitive subject ‘like [it] was sensitive?’ This writing is so awkward, it gets in the way of reading.

At the same time that there is a ridiculous amount of detail on unnecessary scenes, the backstory is ignored or only worked into the current situation in a sentence or two, though everything that is happening is because of it. Somehow there’s a tradition of Black women being sirens through history, though this has only recently come out into the open (maybe?) and the case alluded to above is a new prosecution of a Black woman and siren. Tavia is trying to get in touch (in a mystical way) with her grandmother who is a siren and who she has never met. The disaster in L.A. was caused by Tavia letting out her siren voice, maybe because she had to, but her parents absolutely don’t approve and are always trying to control her.

I know, I know; these ideas sound great, don’t they? They do–young Black women and their voices, fantastical creatures, swimming, etc–but it utterly fails to deliver. You look around reviews and you will notice two things. One, that people who loved the book loved the representation. As the above example illustrates, Black voices are central to the plot, and issues of marginalization, hair, education, “say her name,” privilege, and so forth are regularly discussed. Some of it is too topical and will likely limit the book ‘s relevance/understanding to a particularly moment in time. Two, even people that loved the representation express confusion about the world-building.

It doesn’t help that it’s a first person narrative shared between two teens living in the same house and going to the same school. I’m not sure Morrow ever achieves much difference between the two, and a number of reviewers note the same.

Anyway, I can’t. I so wanted to like this, I kept it longer than I should have, risking the wrath of the librarian gods, hoping I would find some motivation to tackle it again. No go. I would literally rather watch a hair video.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Urban fantasy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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