Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Mussel Eater by Octavia Cade


 

First of all, that is one of the most beautiful covers I've ever seen and, shallow as I am, I had to read it.

Anyway, I happen to have an obsession with the monstrous feminine, so if this review is too involved in the subject, then I'm sorry. 
Every culture possesses this element to their mythology: a monstrous woman who is an object of lust. 
We are all familiar with how the story goes: serpent/demon/snake/dragon/goat/siren/mermaid/etc. woman is spotted by knight/prince/chief's son/random nobleman who instantly wishes to possess her, to attain her otherness for himself, to claim and tame her monstrous beauty.
Said monstrous lady falls in love, accepts to live with this man, but soon he grows disenchanted from how marvellous and magical she is. He betrays her/breaks a promise made to her/cheats on her/etc. and it all ends in tragedy.

It has always fascinated me how these strong women - for women they are, seen through the eyes of fear of femininity - would always fall for these wastes of sperm and egg. 
Western mythology tends to claim these women will be granted mortal souls when married to a man, but I like Queen Yseult's explanation in Ondine by Jean Giraudoux: 
ONDINE : Leave Hans? Why?
YSEULT : Because he is not made for you. Because his soul is small.
ONDINE : I do not have one. It's even worse!
YSEULT: The issue does not arise for you, nor for any non-human creature. The soul of the world breathes in and out through nostrils and gills. But man wanted his soul to himself. He stupidly divided the general soul. There is no soul of men. There are a series of small batches of soul, where flowers grow sour, and vegetables are shrivelled.
(...)
YSEULT: You don't know what this is like, ondines have very great souls.
(the translation from french is mine, so sorry for any mistakes)

I was expecting something along these lines, especially considering the original legend of Pania of the Reef who falls in love with the son of a Māori chief named Karitoki. 
He wishes to have her for himself, even though the Pania must always return to sea at dawn under penalty of death. 
Karitoki tries to trick her and, while she is asleep, tries to feed her cooked food, knowing a Pania who eats anything but raw food cannot return to sea. 
It's the usual betrayal of men who promise love to monstrous women, who somehow accept them despite their mortality, despite their little souls.

This retelling, however, was absolutely subversive with a strong feminist core. 
The feminine monstrosity of the Pania, in all its fish scented oils and scales, dried seaweed hair, sharp nails, and deadly shark teeth, is explored in depth.
Karitoki's fascination is lustful, even if he is disgusted by the Pania herself, even if he fears her. Especially because he fears her.

And the way it ended... I wouldn't spoil it for the world, but it has the most satisfying ending possible!

This short story has about 30 pages and managed to become one of my all time favourites, if that's not recommendation enough, then I don't know what is!


Olivia Cade's website


Buy The Mussel Eater

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