“Let the sea take it.”
The Gloaming begins with jellyfish washing up near a cliff by the sea, on an island where the residents die slow deaths by turning to stone. It’s a sad, strange and beautiful scene, just one of many sprinkled throughout this novel.
Our protagonist is Mara, who falls in love with Pearl, who is a selkie or a mermaid or perhaps neither? Myth and metaphor wind around one another, the author weaving multiple fairytales together to create one of her own. Nothing is quite as it seems in this book. All of this is set against the backdrop of an island with “dark, tarry magic” and the tragic loss of the protagonist’s little brother who was swept out to sea. The novel follows Mara and her family as they try to move through their grief, living their lives amidst the push and pull of the island.
It’s up to the reader to decide, in many places, how much of the island’s magic is real and how much is not. In that sense, The Gloaming is an excellent example of magical realism.
It’s also a beautifully written book. The island is painted so vividly it’s not hard to see how Mara and her family are drawn to it. Sentences flow like poetry – or dare I say, like water – with such careful, well-chosen language it’s easy to get swept up in it.
The novel asks big questions about grief and love and family, and answers them by waving its arms in wide, sweeping arcs. True to its title, The Gloaming is shadowy and mysterious and leaves much unsaid. Instead it asks its readers to read between the lines – there are leaps in time, flashes backwards and forwards, conversations we aren’t fully privy to. The plot meanders through at a leisurely pace, with all of the focus being on simply exploring the characters the story presents to us.
That lack of clarity might be frustrating for some, but it fits with the central themes of the novel rather well. The overwhelming confusion of loss; the sharp pain of hope; half-forgotten stories of childhood; a yearning to be somewhere else but not being quite sure where that somewhere else is. Mara’s queerness melds naturally into these themes, but we skirt around the edges of the harder truths of coming out in a small community. The reluctance to be affectionate with Pearl in front of her family is just barely addressed, for example, and we rarely see the world or anyone in it outside of the main characters.
That said, Mara and Pearl’s relationship is only a fraction of the novel. It’s not a romance, so much as a fantasy that threads romance throughout it. Each member of Mara’s family is fleshed-out and we get to peek inside all of their heads, with every familial relationship explored. Signe and Peter, the parents, are delightful to read about. We spend a lot of time with Mara, who, like the “changeling” motif she is associated with, is seen so differently by so many. She’s brave, sensitive, sad, loving, angry and self-conscious all at once. Ultimately, she’s a fascinating protagonist.
Motifs are everywhere: water, stone, time, death, wind, air. It’s very much a modern-day fairytale that pays homage to the centuries of fairytales that preceded it.
If you’re looking for a story that’s purely about romance, The Gloaming might not be for you. However, if you want to read a haunting fantasy that happens to have a queer romance, this is a great book to dive into.