Ocean Heart is a beautiful novel, and not your typical mermaid book.
At nearly 400 pages, it’s not afraid to take its time getting to the magic, but that time is well spent developing young Mariah so I couldn’t complain.
Mariah is a very unusual mermaid. For one, she doesn’t start with a tail, a kingdom under the sea or a fish friend. In fact, thanks to some magic, she doesn’t even know she is a mermaid!
Instead, Mariah starts the book as a shy girl, undermined by her own doubts. Unable to believe in herself, she finds it nearly impossible to make friends or even find much success in school. For a book whose heroine can create lightning storms with her mind, and grows scales, its depiction of social anxiety and the way it leads us to self-isolate is both surprisingly realistic and heartbreaking. On top of this are the… surprisingly graphic depictions of puberty as seen through the eyes of a girl growing into young woman; the story doesn’t linger on them, but it does add colour to Mariah’s lack of faith in herself; after all, if even her own body is working against her, what chance does she have?
With this in mind, it’s no real surprise that Mariah latches onto the one real friend she’s made, Jace, and wishes that she could push beyond mere friendship into something more. He, of course, is completely unaware of her interest and it was refreshing to see that while he’s a nice guy, he’s not perfect; at one point he asks to practice kissing with her. In the context of the story, it makes sense; he isn’t aware of her feelings, but it’s nonetheless an abuse of their friendship to use her as a mere stand in for another girl whom he really desires.
After a few chapters, we learn the root cause of Mariah’s self-doubt. I think that everyone has felt the frustration of being denied the opportunity to do the things you’re really good at, but when you’re a mermaid and your mother – for entirely rational reasons – forbade you from going near the water, it suddenly makes sense why she’s so insular and uncertain about herself; she’s literally not been allowed to explore who she really is.
Once she does get into the water, things change; she gets more confidence, makes new friends and even starts to look at boys other than Jace. Unfortunately, change can be bad as well as good, because it tuns out that mermaids have more than the power to breath under water, and Mariah learns that she may be dangerous to her newfound friends unless she learns to control these new powers.
Certainly not what I expected when I picked it up, but all in all, a fantastic read; I might wish it concentrated on the magic a bit more, but exploring Mariah’s world through her eyes is a fascinating trip.