The title of this novel is fairly self-explanatory: the protagonist, Stella, follows a series of clues that seem to suggest that her recently deceased mother was in fact a mermaid. She runs away from home intent on finding answers on a nearby island, where she gets into a pickle with her mother’s former associates.
The plot is not particularly original, and many readers are likely to have encountered some version of it before: after the sudden death of a parent, a child searches for answers by retreating into a fantasy world that enables her to come to terms with her loss and reaffirm her connection to the family she still has.
However, although the plot is somewhat formulaic, it is nevertheless gripping and well executed. The pacing is perfect; Unsworth withholds the true identity of Stella’s mother for over half of the novel, feeding Stella and the reader a steady drip of ambiguous clues, each seeming to contradict the last. The setting is likewise left ambiguous, which lends to the otherworldly, fairytale quality of the story. The characters are well drawn and Stella herself is an amusingly fallible protagonist, inviting the reader to recognise her foibles, such as her short attention span and lack of foresight, and notice the danger she is in before she does, thus adding to the suspense.