October 28, 2021

Skin of the Sea

By Natasha Bowen
Review by
This inspired take on “The Little Mermaid” blends West African religion and history in a story as powerful and majestic as the sea.
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It’s the 15th century, and the grim shadows of Portuguese slave ships loom over the Atlantic Ocean. The divine orisa Yemoja, prevented from destroying the ships by ancient magical law, instead uses her power to transform seven humans into mermaidlike beings called Mami Wata. They are tasked with collecting the souls of enslaved people who die at sea—whether by jumping overboard or being murdered by their enslavers—so they can be blessed on their journey home to Olodumare, the Supreme Creator.

Simidele is proud to serve Yemoja as Mami Wata, but she still feels an irresistible pull toward the wisps of memories she can recall from her former life as a human. When Simi chooses to save the life of a boy thrown overboard from one of the ships, she sparks a conflict between powerful orisas. The only way Simi can save herself, Yemoja and the other Mami Wata is by finding two magic rings and petitioning Olodumare for forgiveness. Adekola, the boy Simi rescued, offers to help her find the rings, but her fondness for him holds dangers of its own. Yemoja warns her that if she ever acts on her love for Adekola or any other human, Simi will dissolve into seafoam.

Skin of the Sea is an inspired take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” that blends West African religion and history in an immersive adventure. Simi travels across sun-soaked sands and into cold ocean depths, through dense forests and into harsh volcanic strongholds. In luscious prose, debut author Natasha Bowen beautifully paints sensory details that often trigger Simi’s returning memories. Past and present lace together in these flashbacks, sparked by the familiar color of someone’s eyes or the scent of a homemade meal. Bowen’s rich descriptions are also well suited to conveying the breathtaking grandeur of the many gods, goddesses, spirits and creatures whom Simi and Kola encounter on their quest.

From the outset, the stakes are high for both Simi and Kola. Each new challenge highlights the heroes’ courage in fighting for the ones they love even as they also work to heal from the cruelty and trauma inflicted upon them by enslavers aboard the deadly ships. Skin of the Sea painfully entwines love and sacrifice to create a story as powerful and majestic as the sea itself.

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Skin of the Sea

Skin of the Sea

By Natasha Bowen
Random House
ISBN 9780593120941

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