This month we’re absolutely delighted to have published The Mermaid Call – a gripping story of myth and mystery about a legendary mermaid and her dark power from Alex Cotter, the author of The House on the Edge. And today we’re very excited to be sharing a guest post from Alex!
Mermaids versus Suffragettes. Can you be a fan of both? I grew up awe-struck by the Suffragettes and their seismic, life-changing achievements. I’ve also long adored mermaids and their vast library of stories and legends. And yet in many ways the two can contradict and compete with one another: feminists on one side fighting for equal rights, mermaids on the other promoting an idealised version of women and girls as alluring and beautiful.
It’s that tension between the two that captured my imagination and inspired a story that became my recently published novel, The Mermaid Call. It’s set in a fictional village in the Lake District – Lake Splendour – which survives on tourism from its legendary Lake Mermaid. My main character, Vivien, lives above her gran’s mermaid-themed shop and her family make their living from mermaid merchandise. At the same time, Vivien’s friend is campaigning against Lake Splendour’s ‘sexist’ Mermaid Crown and Vivien herself doesn’t feel pretty enough to enter. Instead, when Vivien meets an enigmatic girl called Alice, she finds herself embarking on a dangerous quest to discover a mystery about Alice’s lost aunt and find out if the mermaid in the lake really exists.
I’m a big fan of any legend; in fact, the search for the Loch Ness monster captivated me as a child and was definitely an inspiration for my story. But mythical stories about merfolk across the globe particularly fascinate me. There’s the dangerous and sharp-teethed Japanese ningyo who offers the promise of youth and beauty (at a price!) Or mermaids closer to home, like the Zennor mermaid who eloped with a boy from Cornwall or the Peak District’s ghost mermaid who grants you eternal life. And yet at the same time, I’ve often been uneasy about the common depiction of mermaids: beautiful long hair, perfect looks, magical qualities. Dig a little deeper and you can soon find evidence that many of their stories were created by a patriarchal society in order to portray women as both tempting and unforgiving, beautiful yet unattainable. And of course the mythical stories that inspired many of the original mermaid tales were mostly written by men too!
I introduce the Suffragettes into The Mermaid Call via two working class girls from Lake Splendour’s past – the Mermaid Girls – who disappeared in 1914 only to return and claim that they had been called by the Lake Mermaid herself. They then use their mermaid encounter to help the village survive on tourism from its lake legend after the First World War puts a stop to its quarry mining. While the legend of a mysterious mermaid is at the heart of the story, as Vivien embarks on her mermaid quest with Alice, the story becomes more about those young Suffragettes and it starts to explore themes of community, survival and self-expression. Most of all it looks at the importance of being true to yourself – rather than believing other people’s opinion of you.
The ‘mermaid’ village of Lake Splendour itself was inspired by the ‘tourist’ communities I used to visit as a child, in the Lake District and also Matlock Bath, an inland town with serious seaside vibes! I also drew upon the stories of my own Irish immigrant grandparents who came to the UK in search of a better life and worked in hat shops and pubs and bakeries. I was equally inspired by my very good friends who moved here from Cyprus and made their living from a seaside fish and chip shop (I relocated it to Lake Splendour!) All these stories of hope and survival, of making choices to give your children a better life, fed into the story of The Mermaid Call and led me back to those incredible Suffragettes. Because that’s what they did. They fought to make a difference, so that the lives of girls and women could be better, equal, more empowered.
So to return to the question that sparked my imagination in the first place: Mermaids versus Suffragettes? I suppose if it was an easy question to answer, it wouldn’t have inspired a whole novel! Yet I have to conclude that, while I will always be entranced by the mystical magic of mermaids, my appreciation and admiration will forever rest firmly at the feet of the Suffragettes. But maybe in some ways the two have more in common than I first realised. Take ‘The Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Andersen – the perils she faced and sacrifices she made to discover another life – it presents some parallels with the fight for women’s liberation, for change, for being true to yourself. And after all, there’s no reason why today’s mermaid can’t be a feminist too!
Read the first few chapters below: