Written by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by James Mayhew, Owlet Press, 2021
My first trip to the UK since the pandemic and I have finally managed to get my hands on a copy of Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew’s Nen and the Lonely Fisherman. This is a gorgeous tale, lyrically told and beautifully illustrated.
The timing for this book was serendipitous for me, as I have been experimenting with writing myself, taking Zoe Gilbert’s Folk Tales in New Fiction course through the London Lit Lab, and so I have been thinking about the messages in fairytales, and the ways they are told and re-told, being shaped to say something old or something new. (See other thoughts on fairy tales here and here, and for another gorgeous re-imagining of a difficult old tale, The Secret of the Tattered Shoes.)
Nen takes inspiration from The Little Mermaid, telling the story of a merman and his developing relationship with a human man named Ernest. There are familiar themes; the merman’s curiosity about the world above the waves, the rescue from the stormy waves. But this tender, loving book tells a story of mutual regard and equality, far removed from the prince, his ignorance and the sacrificed voice of the original. Where the original might tell you not to yearn for something outside your own world, Ian Eagleton’s re-working shows the joy in two worlds coming together. There is opposition to the relationship, Nen’s father, Pelagios, is worried for his son and for his oceans – weaving in an environmental theme that chimes well with the considerate, thoughtful relationship building between Nen and Ernest.
My husband and I have both read this with our newly-minted 4 year old, and both of us read it with a smile; there’s a warm feeling when she reaches for it. How does it make her feel? ‘Happy when those guys are together,’ she says, pointing to Nen and Ernest out at sea, watching the stars. ‘Happy-sad’, she clarifies. And I understand what she means, there are moments of anger and loneliness in the story, before the rainbow-filled peace and joy of the ending.
James Mayhew’s illustrations enhance the story; Nen is lithe and lovely, with golden bands to match his golden tail; the faces are expressive. And the pictures are full of telling details, Nen’s beautiful rainbow song reaching across the sea, calling to Ernest. But Ernest isn’t overwhelmed by Nen’s magic or his beauty – this book shows the time, the conversation, the laughter and dreams that go into a relationship. It’s a fairy-tale, but one without the royalty or the sacrifices. And for me, also leaves open other ways to Happily Ever After. It is a tender lovestory between the young fisherman and young merman. But it’s illustrated with hand-holding and talking, rather than kisses and weddings and elevated status. Nen and Ernest meet, but without either having to give up their lives or their world for the other. It’s an Ever After that allows for the deep contentment of companionship rather than idolising the traditional trappings of romance. It shows the joy in relationships of mutual regard, between people, and with the natural world. The more I read this book, the more layers I find for myself, as well as for the children.