Sep 08, 2023

Book Review: ‘The Gospel of Orla,’ by Eoghan Walls; ‘Chlorine,’ by Jade Song; ‘American Mermaid,’ by Julia Langbein; ‘Chrysalis,’ by Anna Metcalfe

The Shortlist

In four debut novels, all the heroines want — whether they have two legs or a fishtail — is a miracle.

Credit...John Gall

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By Claire Luchette

In Eoghan Walls's THE GOSPEL OF ORLA (236 pp., Seven Stories, paperback, $16.95), the flinty 14-year-old protagonist runs away from home and finds God — in the form of a "mad hairy" guy wrapped in a blanket who steals her bike. Enraged and afraid, she pulls a pocketknife and demands his name.

"Jesus?" she asks, when he tells her. "Jesus bloody Jesus like the Jesus Jesus?" He nods.

Her bike gone, Orla must return home to her widowed father and toddler sister in the North England village of Glasson Dock. But she's determined to hatch a new plan. It's unfair that her grieving dad gets to do what he wants, which is drink; what Orla wants is to steal and skip class and get out of there. When Jesus returns her bike, she shows him how to use an iPhone — he pokes and scrolls, transfixed — and it turns out he's the real deal: a genuine miracle-worker who raises her cat from the dead. She sees possibility. She persuades him to run off to Ireland with her and try to resurrect her mom.

As coming-of-age stories go, "The Gospel of Orla" is winningly off-kilter. Walls refuses easy sentimentality, and the story is brisk and surprising, perfectly paced. Orla's irreverence is beguiling — "Everyone was all so nicey nice after Mum died even Suzie B who is a two-face slag" — and her sense of injustice buoying. We don't live forever: Orla is right to find this deeply messed up. Walls's marvelous novel asks what we might look for by way of consolation. A miracle shouldn't be too much to ask.

"Forget what you know about mermaids," beseeches teenage Ren, the narrator of Jade Song's debut, CHLORINE (237 pp., Morrow, $30). "You think mermaids have no power." To be fish-bodied, Ren insists, is to be almighty.

Song's harrowing novel subverts the standards of merfolk lore — clamshell bras, underwater kingdoms, the love of a sailor or prince. "For too long you’ve been inundated by G-rated fairy tales," Ren says. She is not beneficent or seductive; she's ruthless and mutilated.

When she's still human, the fastest on her swim team and the favorite of her lascivious coach, Ren is lonely. Her dad returns to China to build a business: "What is it called when immigrants reverse," Ren wonders, "when they wake up from the nightmare masked as a dream?" Ren asks when he’ll come back, and he promises, "As soon as you go under a minute in the 100 freestyle." Ren's mom exerts pressure, too, urging her to impress Ivy League recruiters.

Ren finds a friend in Cathy, who, in a splendidly uncomfortable moment, helps her insert a tampon. Cathy alone treasures Ren whether she wins or loses, has two legs or a tail. Cathy's love letters to Ren, overwrought in that adolescent way, are threaded throughout the book.

Her mind warped by stress, Ren decides the only way to be the best is to transform herself. Her metamorphosis is horrifying, but only for the reader: "Mermaids relish pain," she says. Change requires a little agony, Ren shows us. Delusion, too.

"The mermaid has to die," a screenwriter tells Penny, the narrator of Julia Langbein's sublime AMERICAN MERMAID (329 pp., Doubleday, $28), who has also written a novel called "American Mermaid." Penny has left Connecticut and a low-paid teaching job she loved to make a go of it in Hollywood, adapting her surprise best seller for the screen. Killing Sylvia, her formidable mermaid protagonist, would be a major departure from her novel.

The show's writers have also decided they need to eroticize the asexual Sylvia. "There's just no way to sexualize a fish," Penny tells them. "She's going to have to win your interest some other way." The writers — both men — are pigheaded and tactless; their conversations with Penny are very funny. In an extended, riotous text thread about merfolk sex, they somehow bring in Saoirse Ronan, Ina Garten and "semen soup." Their humiliating proposed tagline for the trailer: "FIRST. WAVE. FEMINISM."

Langbein intertwines Penny's story with chapters from her own novel, and this book-within-a-book structure allows us to mourn the gap between the novel Penny has written and the version she's told will make a good movie. ("It's my story," she bemoans to her shark of an agent. "Not really," the agent responds. "You sold it.") The writers confront Penny about major changes made to the master script; Penny, who can't account for them, starts to suspect Sylvia has come alive to edit the screenplay and reclaim her fate. Langbein's novel considers how we decide who owns a story — and, far more compelling, how we know when a story succeeds.

The epigraph for Anna Metcalfe's eerie and mesmerizing debut, CHRYSALIS (259 pp., Random House, $27), comes from Vladimir Nabokov, who was obsessed with butterflies. After emerging from the cocoon, Nabokov writes, "the butterfly sees the world, the large and awful face of the gaping entomologist." The comma is suggestive: For the watched, the watcher is both of the world, and the world itself.

Metcalfe splits her novel among three first-person narrators, each of whom closely observes the same unnamed woman — a fitness influencer who posts "Still Life" videos in which she holds poses for hours. The first vantage point is Elliot's: He goes to her gym and watches her lift weights, entranced by her self-possession. We hear, too, from the woman's mother, Bella, who recounts how badly she wanted her mercurial daughter to need her when she was younger. The final section belongs to the influencer's friend Susie, who helped the woman through a bad breakup, and now watches her videos and reads all the comments.

"Do you really need the people in your life," the woman asks her followers, "or do they need you?" She advocates radical solitude: "Cut yourself off." People go wild for the excuse to be selfish in the name of self-care. The woman coins hokey terms like "lonefulness" and "alonement," and soon her followers start disappearing: They give up their lives and take to the woods to seek quiet and stillness.

"Chrysalis" is a thrilling look at how we spin silk around ourselves by watching the world on our screens. We are the gaping entomologist; we are the pupa, always a little stuck.

Claire Luchette is the author of "Agatha of Little Neon."


Send any friend a story 10 gift articles THE GOSPEL OF ORLA (236 pp., Seven Stories, paperback, $16.95) CHLORINE (237 pp., Morrow, $30) AMERICAN MERMAID (329 pp., Doubleday, $28) CHRYSALIS (259 pp., Random House, $27)