Lu Hersey’s debut may have been written with a teen readership in mind, but it transcends the YA category with a tender, eerie tale of marine myths and magic. Lu won the 2013 Mslexia Children’s Novel Writing Award for Deep Water, and the gentle, almost stealthy start belies the thrill and beauty of this book.
Danni is your average 15-year-old with an average family life, or so she thinks until the day she comes home to find her mother missing and a mysterious pool of salt water on the kitchen floor.
Along with cheery sidekick Levi, Danni is packed off to stay with her dad in Cornwall and soon becomes immersed in a world where curses take the form of ‘poppets’, the weather can be charmed with knotted fabric and a select few can take the form of seals when the fancy takes them.
In Cornwall, Danni gets to meet a family member she thought was long deceased, and discovers an inherited trait that will change her life forever – she’s a sea person, and needs to transform into a seal on a regular basis to retain her health and sanity.
Drawing on Celtic legends, Lu has created a version of the metamorphous stories that’s far removed from the fey prettiness most mermaid tales – changing is physically excruciating for Danni and a mackerel she consumes while in seal form is painfully thrown up when returned to human physiology. Details like this keep the fantasy elements firmly rooted in reality, and make you invest wholeheartedly in the flawed yet potent core characters.
The underwater scenes are powerfully written – atmospheric and charged with dazzling energy. “Out in the open water, we circle a swarm of ghostly jellyfish with cauliflower-like tentacles that have somehow survived the winter, drifting along on some invisible current. I swim through the darkening water, somersaulting round and round in sheer joy at the sensation and the freedom.”
There’s plenty of suspense and danger too, mainly at the hands of murderous minister Crawford who is determined to do away with as many sea people as possible. Fortunately, Danni has an array of friends, old and new (charm-maker Robert is a particular delight) to help her out when things get perilous.
A few elements needed more exploration for me, including an all-too brief sighting of an intriguing bull seal who is never glimpsed again. I did wonder if book two is on its way (I hope so!), and whether the few loose ends in Deep Water are paving the way for the second novel. If it is, I’ll gladly devour the next book two – Danni and her friends are well worth revisiting.
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