It may seem like an unnatural progression for talented local author Michelle Tea to produce an unorthodox yet sparkling work of young adult fantasy after penning an award-winning novel, four memoirs, and a poetry collection, but let her work her magic. Tea channels her creative energy in a different direction by chronicling the magical, mystical life of 13-year-old Sophie Swankowski in Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, the opening volume of a new trilogy.
It’s set in Chelsea, MA, the dank and dreary Boston-area town where Tea was raised, the locale for many of her works. Sophie smokes, swears, and plays “the pass-out game” by inducing fainting spells to pass the time. Sadly, there’s not much to do in Chelsea, home to “flocks of dirty pigeons and dented old cars; fish sticks with freezer burn and fast food drive-throughs; scuffed, neglected parks, trash-strewn train tracks and a putrid creek.” The creek is where Sophie dreams of a ragged, fork-tongued, Polish-accented mermaid flouncing about, calling her name, predicting her future, and changing her summer forever.
After her mother finds out about her fainting escapades, Sophie is exiled to her mean grandmother’s house and business, the town dump. In-between worrying about her hair and imagining herself being adopted by a rich family from Cambridge, she recreationally passes out, giving vivid life to the Polish mermaid of her dreams and a cast of fancifully conjured characters who lead Sophie to a place where her identity isn’t so mired in the bleak reality of teenage life.
Redemption is a foregone conclusion, but first readers must wade through a phantasmagorical swamp of ancient spells, Polish mysticism, and fever dream-inspired supernatural events made palatable by Sophie’s rough-and-ready personality. The hopelessness that permeates these pages is unrelenting and will appeal to young and adult readers who like their stories on the gothic, purgatory side of fantasy.