I adored this book and the beautiful relationship between its two narrators, Tavia and Effie.
The story lines in A Song Below Water feel timely, but would have fit decades ago, too (with one exception: this YA fantasy is anchored to the present by Tavia’s devotion to a fictional YouTube star). Its themes are comprehensive: activism, fear rooted in bigotry (through mythos), racism, sexism, the drive a parent feels to keep a child safe from that discrimination and, rising above them all, friendship and found family.
Tavia’s voice is power—literally, when she uses her siren voice. But being a siren is dangerous, tied into the fact that only black women and girls have been sirens in recent times. Tavia’s throat burns when she suppresses her voice, but—according to her father—being outed as a siren is the worst thing that could happen. She’s worn down by a life spent wading through society’s fears, her father’s and her own.
A Song Below Water‘s other protagonist, Effie, is the antidote for all that, even if she can’t take it away. They aren’t really sisters, but now that they live together they might as well be. Oh, and she’s a mermaid. Not in real life, but she plays one at the Renaissance faire she loves. Effie’s love for it goes back to her mother, who was a performer, too, and since her mother’s death, it’s how she holds on.
She might not be a real mermaid, but it’s clear Effie is something. As the girls negotiate a sometimes cruel and frequently, dangerously misunderstanding world (same goes for their high school), their bond of sisterhood guides them through and propels the story line. That and the mysterious gargoyle that roosts on Tavia’s roof.
This is a great story, well told, and more. A Song Below Water is chuck full of lessons in empathy for non-black readers. Morrow does some of her best work in Tavia’s narration. “I’m not up for educating anyone on how many things exist that they don’t know about or support, even if we are basically friends,” says Tavia, too worn to explain when she’s questioned about why she watches hair videos on YouTube. And, later, “the only ones who seem to stand for Black girls are Black girls.”
The popular girls have magic to boost their charm, but Tavia and Effie have it all on their own. They read like real girls.
As A Song Below Water progresses, Tav moves ever closer to activism, and gets a big jolt forward when another young woman reveals herself as a siren. It gives Tavia more than one reason to join in, and more than one reason to be afraid. Yet, at the protest, she says, “I feel honest here. I feel like a battery being recharged. Like an orphan coming home.”
A Song Below Water is wonderfully crafted, too. The mystery of Effie’s identity—and that of her father—kept me turning pages late into the night (even when I guessed part of the answer). I had to know what happened to these fully realized characters. The story might be wrapped up a little quickly and neatly, but it’s not without heartache. For some of the characters, it will never be neat enough.
And one other thing: these are real girls on the page. (I can’t speak to whether their slang is accurate, but it did make me feel old, so there’s that.) It was refreshing. Tavia and Effie’s stories are crammed full of the ache of facing the world (and boys, and parents) as young adults. Their emotions and fears feel real and unforced, and their characters are never diminished just because they do something girly. They’re competent, confident, and capable of independently navigating the world, even if all the supernatural happenings are overwhelming them. They cry without looking like crybabies, without ever seeming weak.
Yes, they also care about their hair and poor Effie’s skin, but they aren’t made to look vapid or silly while doing it. They’re two teenagers taking charge, trying to figure out how to grow up and how to write the manuals for their lives, the way we all have to. Effie gets self-conscious. Tav braves the minefield of popular elokos who have it all. She also worries about whether she will be allowed to grow up because of who she is.
The romance angles are never soapy or sappy, only authentically awkward and sweet (or heartbreaking. In both cases, it doesn’t consume either girl’s life). Its characters could easily walk off the page, but it’s the bittersweet nature of A Song Below Water that makes its plot feel true. In that way, this is not just timely but a timeless story, with a universal message you don’t need to be young to remember:
True friendship is rare, and growing up, no matter who you are (or because of who you are), is no small feat.