Robot Review | Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson
Although I sometimes revisit old favorites of mine, I never re-read a book as soon as I’m done with it. Ever. Life’s too short, and I have too much on my reading pile, so it just isn’t done. It is a Rule. But it’s a rule I broke with Sailor Twain.
When I finished it the first time, I had a feeling similar to the one I had after seeing The Sixth Sense. Sailor Twain doesn’t rely on a big reveal at the end the way that movie does – Mark Siegel unpacks the mysteries of his story slowly and all along its course – but at the end I still wanted to go back and re-read earlier chapters knowing what I’d learned in later ones. And the experience of the book was so enchanting the first time that I wouldn’t mind reliving that again as well.
Sailor Twain begins at the end with the title character Captain Elijah Twain sitting with a beautiful woman in a rough-looking pub near the Hudson River. They’re impatient with each other. She’s eager to learn what he knows about the death of someone they were both close to; he’s eager not to tell her. But she presents a curious stone on a necklace, and that’s enough to make him tell the tale.
I wouldn’t dream of revealing the mysteries of Sailor Twain, so I’ll just say that the story involves a wounded mermaid that Twain finds trying to climb aboard his riverboat. He drags her on and keeps her in his cabin, nursing her back to health. Who the mermaid is, what her intentions are for Twain, and how she was injured are only some of the mysteries aboard Twain’s ship. There are also the hidden facts behind the recent suicide of the ship’s previous owner and the strange, almost desperate lecherousness of the current one. Almost everyone aboard has some kind of secret or tragedy in his or her past, and it’s a fun challenge to keep them straight and try to figure out which – if any of them – are connected to each other.
While that’s going on, Siegel is also exploring deeply emotional themes. Mermaids have always been symbols of seduction, representing the allure of the sea – or in this case, the river – and how it pulls men away from their loved ones at home. Siegel makes good use of that and dives into the idea of being torn between multiple loves. Twain cares about his sick wife in Tarrytown, but does he stay on the river because he’s trying to raise money to treat her illness (as he claims) or because he’s also in love with the river itself? Lafayette, the philandering ship-owner, claims his unfaithfulness is evidence that his heart is bigger than those who “only have room for one love.” I’m tempted to talk more about how Siegel explores the theme of wholeheartedness, but it’s impossible without getting into spoiler-filled waters. I’ll just say that Sailor Twain made me think about and question my own relationships and priorities, which is the mark of a great book.
One of the ways he does this is by making the book itself an act of seduction. On the front cover is a blurb by John Irving that calls Siegel’s artwork “haunting” and “erotically charged.” That’s quite an accomplishment for a book whose characters have big, Scott Pilgrim-esque eyes, but it’s a true statement. Siegel’s un-inked pencils give the book a soft look and the cartoonishness of some of the characters makes the realistic elements that much more shocking and enticing. When Twain looks at the naked mermaid, the way Siegel draws the two characters clearly communicates the difference between their worlds. There’s something plain and unfinished about Twain, the man who can’t make up his mind about where he belongs. The mermaid, on the other hand, feels complete. There’s so much artistry in the way she’s drawn that it’s no wonder Twain is drawn to her, because I’m drawn to her myself.
Not that the two styles are jarring next to each other. Siegel blends them together with his use of shading, another powerful tool he makes good use of. He uses light and deep, black shadows effectively (often in the same panel) to communicate emotions or simply for dramatic effect. There’s a reason that Twain is always in a heavy, black pea coat while light-haired Lafayette wears white.
Sailor Twain’s nearly 400 pages are packed with that kind of thing: images and story made me feel as deeply as they made me think. As editorial director of the company that published his book, there was a lot of pressure for Siegel to create something worthy of standing with the rest of First Second’s impressive catalog. He’s more than met the challenge.