The Wajinru are mermaid-like people, descendants of pregnant African slave women who were thrown overboard during the slave trade. The children inside the slavewomens’ wombs transformed and were birthed with gills and fins. Since the Wajinrus’ past is so traumatic, they do not all remember how their people came to be and how their ancestors’ culture developed. Instead, only one of their people is tasked with remembering their history. Since her 14th birthday Yetu has been the Wajinru’s historian. Yetu isn’t particularly happy about her position because she is consumed by visions of past trauma and the memories of previous historians. She must sacrifice her own identity to be their historian. The historian must lead her people through a ritual of Remembering their past, but Yetu is unsure if she can bear this responsibility.
For such a short read, this packed an emotional punch on many levels. It is easy to feel for Yetu herself. She sacrifices a lot to be the historian, and her position wasn’t something she had much choice in. It requires a lot from her, both physically and mentally, and her people do not fully appreciate or understand what she goes through. Because of this she rightly feels alone, and since she is the only one to remember her people’s past, she shoulders the full force of their people’s trauma. I liked that she met another character that was a foil to her: a character who lacks a family and ancestral knowledge and hungers for it when Yetu herself runs from her people. This puts Yetu’s personal struggles into a broader perspective and was ultimately what drove the plot.
The narrative jumps between Yetu’s present experiences and the Wajinru’s history. The writing is beautiful, and even though the book is short, the Wajinru are quite developed in their culture and history. The plot centers on Yetu’s internal struggle and her people’s understanding of what she is going through. Both come to appreciate each other while Yetu makes connections outside of the Wajinru, which helps her understand her identity and her people even more. The climax was also very powerful.
Whether you will like the novella or not really depends on what you’re looking for. If you just want a fantasy novel about mermaids, you may not like this very much. But, if you are interested in something a little experimental, something more about exploring historical and social concepts within a fantastical lens than a more traditional plot and its characters, then you might like this. I gave it four out of five stars because it was so unique and emotional, yet I still would have liked to have more time in the world or a more complex plot. Perhaps instead of the Wajinru’s history being told in flashbacks, the novella could have taken place during those events and covered several generations instead? Regardless of my wants or needs, the novella is definitely worth a read so that you can make your own judgments.
The novella approaches a number of heavy subjects: slavery, shared and personal traumas, the individual vs. the collective, and the importance of family ties, to name a few. I read The Deep as an audiobook, which I would also highly recommend. It is read by Daveed Diggs from the musical group clippings and the musical Hamilton.