“Here is a story. Story it is…”
When Simidele dies, she is given a choice by the goddess, Yemoja. She can serve Yemoja by collecting the souls of the stolen people cast to their deaths in the watery depths from the slave ships above, so they may be blessed and sent safely onwards to the creator, or simply be sent onwards herself. She chooses to stay, and becomes a Mami Wata, a mermaid, patrolling the waters for the despicable ships with their horrific human cargo. But when one of the discarded bodies still shows signs of life, she makes the decision to save a life rather than reap a soul and sets in motion a chain of events that she never could have foreseen.
Skin of the Sea is a beautifully detailed dark fairy tale set in the seas and lands of West Africa in the fifteenth century. Told from the perspective of the now Mami Wata, Simidele, it follows her journey as she attempts to atone for her actions, pitting her against the Orisha of the Yoruba pantheon and the mythological creatures of the region.
The novel is pitched as YA, but this doesn’t mean that Bowen has pulled any of the punches – this is not a sanitised Disneyesque story, by any means. There is blood and death and slavery, and nobody is guaranteed a happy ending. All these things make the story that much more compelling, and Simi that much more of a wholly realised and sympathetic character. Slavery is obviously part of this tale, but perhaps more important is the depiction of the rich West African history, culture, and mythology of this time.
Two last points. In the author’s afterword, she says something which is just too important a point to be hidden away in the bit that many readers don’t bother to look at, so I’m just going to quote it here: “Representation matters. There is no escaping the fact that readers engage in stories where they see themselves.” The other thing I want to mention is the cover. I’ve read this novel, as I normally do with review books, on my Kindle Paperwhite, a device that only deals in greyscale, and rarely starts you off at the cover image anyway. This cover is absolutely outstandingly stunning and needs to be seen in the biggest ‘real’ format possible – buy a paper copy of the book.
Incredibly, Skin of the Sea is Natasha Bowen’s debut novel. If this is the quality of writing she produces in her first book, I really can’t wait to read the next.
Publication date: 11th November 2021