Natasha Bowen’s New York Times bestselling novel, Skin of the Sea, is an African diasporic and supernatural journey packed with drama, suspense, romance, and troublesome inter-deity politics. Set against the backdrop of the blossoming and brutal transatlantic slave trade, Skin of the Sea follows main protagonist Simidele, or Simi, a Mami Wata or divinely created mermaid. But Simi is no Ariel frolicking under the sea collecting bits and bobbles. It is a Mami Wata’s sworn duty and singular purpose to deliver the souls of stolen Africans to the Orisha Yemoja so the dead may find peace in the afterlife. When a body is tossed from the large slaver ships, Mami Wata like Simi capture the person’s soul in a magic jewel and return to the island of Yemoja for the soul’s sending. If that’s not grim enough, time under the water in her mermaid form causes Simi and the other Mami Wata to forget their previous human lives and their humanity.
Bowen, a writer of Nigerian and Welsh descent, seamlessly blends the worlds of the natural and supernatural in a manner that reflects and uniquely represents the dual status of diasporic descendants. Simi is constantly forced to choose between her new life in the cold, unfamiliar world of the deep ocean and the tightly held memories of her heritage and home. However, everything about her existence now demands she forget it. But within the novel, it is not only Simi who must contend with two disparate worlds. Simi’s obligatory love interest, a young man named Kola, soon learns that the gods he prays to and the monsters of the stories he was told as a child are all too real.
The story’s main characters, Simi and Kola, first meet when Kola’s body is thrown from a passing slave ship. With power more akin to Aquaman than King Triton’s youngest, Simi commands the sharks that are following the ship and now circling Kola’s body to stay away from it until she has performed the rite and captured his soul. There is, however, one small problem. Kola is not dead.
Simi’s decision to save the drowning Kola is the singular, spontaneous act whose ripples reach into the area of orishan politics and promises, turning the gentle wave of action into a tsunami of trouble. Simi finds out too late that her act of saving a mortal from the sea is in violation of an edict laid down by the Supreme Creator, Olodumare, and that this was a specific and crucial condition in allowing Yemoja to create her Mami Wata to spirit away souls of the stolen. Because of the violation, Simi has no choice but to go find Olodumare and beg for forgiveness. However, not only does no one know precisely where Olodumare is or how to properly summon the powerful being, Simi must also acquire two specific rings, and find a way around the trickster god, Esu, who protects the Supreme Creator. Thankfully, Simi does not have to make this journey alone. Kola swears to see her through it since it was saving his life that caused her situation, but also because he wants to appeal to Olodumare to help save his village from slavers and an unnatural blight creeping across the world. By the time the young pair reaches Kola’s village, they discover that things are worse than when he was abducted. His younger twin siblings have been taken and the crop and animal death of the blight has reached his home.
Bowen’s prose does not ignore the sorrow or brutality of the transatlantic slave trade, but the thematic focus is the lives that were stolen away from their homes, communities, culture, and land. It is not simply the immoral sale or ownership of another person that is the greatest insult to Yemoja, the orisha of the sea and the creator of the Mami Wata. The insult is the sundering and denial of the stolen person’s identity.
There exists a slight irony, however, to Yemoja’s position. When she chose the seven that would serve as the extension of her will made flesh, she does so at the cost of their previous identities. Each Mami Wata must forget their homes, their communities, their culture, and their life on land. A Mami Wata’s only chance at retaining this human sense of self is by changing into their human form and staying out of the water. However, not only are such changes frowned upon unless performed out of necessity, but the transformation itself is painful and leaves the “legged” Mami Wata in a severely weakened state as they are no longer accustomed to using leg muscles to walk and the soles of their feet are soft and tender. The transformation from tail to leg is not unlike the painful transformation presented in the world’s most famous mermaid story, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Much like the enslaved people crowded onto European ships, Mami Watas are cut off from their past, reclassified, repurposed, and thrust into another world. Of course, the essential difference between the stolen and the transformed is choice.
Simi’s journey to find the Supreme Creator and make amends for the ancient covenant she unwittingly broke when she rescued Kola is not just a test of endurance and courage. The journey is a test of her faith and her place as a Mami Wata. The most challenging part of her road to redemption lies not with the gods but within her lost humanity. This humanity first manifests when she notes that one of the stolen’s eyes remind her of her mother’s eyes. Kola’s presence further ignites memories of Simi’s life as a human being. However, it is her burgeoning love for Kola that presents Simi with a life-or-death conundrum, because the Yemoja has warned her that to fall in love with a human will instantly dissolve both her status as a Mami Wata and her body as she will turn into sea foam and die. This seems to be another reference to Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” In that tale, if the mermaid failed to get the prince to love her, she would turn into sea foam. In the end, the mermaid fails but discovers something new as a being of foam. Simi’s situation is much starker as she knows turning into sea foam means the end of her existence in any form and on any level.
If that were not enough, Simi and the group of fellow travelers and warriors she picks up along the way must contend with Esu who seeks to stop, block, or slow their way at every opportunity. Esu, a minor orisha and a trickster one at that, has much in common with other deities and demi-gods who thrive on chaos and confusion. (Indeed, the Yoruba God Esu would not be out of place at a brunch with the Norse God Loki, West African God Anansi, Chinese God the Monkey King or Algonquin God Wisakedjak. In fact, Anasi and Wisakedjak, called Whiskey Jack, have already proven to be birds of a feather in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.)
Bowen’s choice to utilize first person point of view for her narrative securely places Simi, her experience, her feelings, and her fears squarely before the reader. The overall effect is that the book reads more like an oral narrative, an appropriate likeness given West Africa’s rich griot history. Well-placed flashbacks add layers of context and connection between Simi’s current experiences and her nearly forgotten past life as a human. Bowen manages to provide a perfect balance between painting a beautiful setting and story with her prose and the narrative exposition and deep characterization required to make that setting and story feel real. This balance is a must for any fantasy fiction, and Bowen makes it look easy. Also, though it is definitely Simi’s story, Bowen provides the character of Kola as the reader’s eyes and ears. The world of the Orisha and their subsequent creations is only familiar to Kola on the page and not in the flesh. Everything is new to him, and he keeps up because he must. Simi may be the actual fish out of water, but it is Kola who, with the reader, is introduced to beings and places of myth and story.
Natasha Bowen manages to weave standard fantasy tropes and concepts of the mythical mermaid with traditional Yoruba deities and cultural mythologies. Though not depicting the gods of more well-known mythologies, readers across the world will have no difficulty following, understanding, and enjoying learning about a new set of gods to cause mischief among the mortals of their realm. Skin of the Sea lifts the veil between many worlds both for the characters and the reader. It is a fantastic tale, rich in cultural beliefs and nuance and beautifully rendered settings and conflicts. Bowen does not run from the atrocities of the slave trade; instead she presents the richness and pride of the people targeted and stolen from their homes. Skin of the Sea takes place during a heart-wrenching time yet has a heartwarming new mermaid “tail” to tell.