If you thought The Handmaid’s Tale was great but needed mermaids, then Chloe Timms has answered your call with her rebellious debut about the bonds that shackle us to rigid communities and the desire for a spell to come along and set us free. Savage winds, overzealous fishermen and ominous storms linger on every page of this enjoyably stark debut: if you like your sea stories cold, The Seawomen is a no-brainer.
With the loudest of splashes, Timms shows no confusion about the book she is writing: this is a book for sea lovers; men have limp fish for moustaches, boys crowd girls like cormorants, women are bait on a hook. It is a book that coughs up every image of the sea Timms can muster. It also, primarily, a book for all the women longing to leave men and their toxic prisons behind in search of an enchanting, wipe-open sanctuary. Timms turns storms into rallying cries and the violence of ocean waves into moonlit embraces.
However, the very whiff of freedom in the sea salt spray is enough to have the women in the novel harassed, beaten, and finally exiled to the mercy of the ocean. Glance at the beautiful waves, pick up a pebble, fail to get pregnant: all of these are the mark of the seawomen: vicious, womanly demons that lurk in the depths of the island’s border and turn women away from God, away from goodness, and most heinously, away from men. Girls and women must keep their heads down to the earth — a holy place — and their emotions in check. Everybody born on the island lives in fear of these beliefs, enforced by the rule of Father Jessop, a bland-faced tyrant who moulds the island boys in his image and takes pleasure in the community’s many forms of exorcism and spiritual healing.
But this fast-paced and rather bitter sea tale begins with Esta as she is forced to attend her first Untethering by her devoted, mean-spirited grandmother. Esta is a little girl desperate to fit in with tradition but drawn to everything that is forbidden, with Untetherings — beach-side sacrifices all in the name of purity — a mandatory attendance to reinforce the Island’s superstitions. Women suspected of having been seduced by the sea are promptly tied to a raft and cast off to their deaths so that any ill-wind dies with them. This way, as everybody on land believes, God’s light can shine upon the island once more. It is a gripping start that efficiently sets up the laws of Timms novel and the characters that will enforce or break them in the time to come. From there, we follow Esta as she grows from a terrified girl to a curious teen, and finally to a woman that knows what she needs and the cost it will take to get it.
The problem is that Esta must follow the rules set by Father Jessop or perish as a pariah. If Esta is lucky, she will be “given a husband”. As a girl, one islander proudly advises her that girls are “best treated like animals”, in other words: keep them fed, warm, and inside a cage and they won’t bring evil to your doorstep. The heavy boot of male oppression is presented with the bluntness of a hammer, but it’s only pushed so aggressively as to allow you to easily support Esta with each step she takes in defiance of the men that crowd and control her.
There is, predictably, a tender romance threaded into the narrative to give extra risk to proceedings and also to offer moments of swoon-worthy warmth. Sadly, this is the weakest element of the book, unable to avoid a disappointingly shallow repulsion to attraction love story that lacked chemistry — those looking for sizzling waters will feel unsatisfied. Thankfully, where Timms takes the romance is more interesting, and the climax drifts in several narratively uncommon directions before settling on the one that was inevitable all along.
Since the story is exclusively focused on Esta and her internal struggles against an external world closing in, the supporting cast lacks a little depth and floats around without making much of an impact. Doran is the cruel boy that haunts Esta throughout, but besides showing up and shouting sea-witch a few times, he isn’t all that interesting and is quickly relegated to privileged bully status. Meanwhile, as tshe dominant force on the island, Father Jessop grows less mysterious and fearsome as the novel goes along. He is, in many ways, similar to Mayor Prentiss in The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness with his rigid beliefs and fear of women, but without the interesting inner philosophical conflict. Jessop is a forgettable villain in a story that could have done with more bite. There is also a general sense of plot imbalance in the novel with all the exciting bits squeezed into a breathless finale. Threads are left hanging, or forgotten altogether, and with it, some interesting side characters drift away. A sequel is almost certainly bubbling away somewhere.
As for the more mysterious aspects, given the delightful cover and synopsis, you’d be forgiven for anticipating a book with a real supernatural presence to it, but this is curiously lightweight, with all of the siren shenanigans confined to the background, just out of reach and off the page. Timms is more interested in the dynamics of Esta’s feelings and the role she is expected to play as another woman on the island. Much of this novel is spent with Esta itching to leave the creaking floorboards of her various homes and all the ways in which she can avoid talking to the men that demand her attention.
But the real heart of The Seawomen is with Esta and the sea; a constant draw to her eye, the whisper of something dangerous, unknown, exciting, and Timms exceeds where it matters, and that’s in creating a tantalising, palpable tug between one woman and the sea that is waiting for her to slide in. Water has long been tied to sexual awakening and birth, so it’s no surprise that Timms doubles down on this connection, with many passages like “the tide tonguing the heel of my boots” and “the water was pushing and pulling my thighs.” While the central romance fails to spark, there is no question that the book comes to life when reveling in Esta’s attraction to the sea that has defined her entire existence, only now she wonders if sinking into it might be the only way to truly live.
Thank you to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.