“Forget what you know about mermaids...You think mermaids have no power. You are wrong.”
Buckle up, y’all! This smashing debut by Jade Song will stick with you long after the last page. A literary horror novel that wears the cloak of a coming-of-age tale, Chlorine centers around Ren Yu, a young Chinese American girl who is obsessed with mermaids and swimming. No one can understand her father’s accent, limiting his job prospects, so he moves back to China to start a business leaving Ren and her mother behind. She asks, “When will you be back?”. “As soon as you go under a minute in the 100 freestyle”, he replies, thus sparking her all-consuming drive to be the fastest on the team, for then she will be scouted by prestigious Ivy-league colleges making her parents proud and fulfilling their American dream. Then she will be Coach Jim’s favorite. Then she will transcend the human world and become what she’s always wanted to be- a mermaid. Not your “G-rated” mermaid, but one who has the power to lure men “to their watery deaths”. Her obsession began at the age of 4 when she was gifted a book of tales with one in particular about Passamaquoddy, the Native American mermaid whose sole goal was to kill colonizers.
Every Friday, Ren and her mother watch Chungking Express starring Faye Wong, her favorite singer. Ren binges on pasta and attends shaving parties with her teammates, and finds release with a few sexual partners finding some semblance of bodily autonomy. She begins a close friendship with Cathy, the only teammate who shows kindness towards her and is the most accepting of her Chinese heritage while others condescendingly ask her if she sneezed when she tells them her full name. Cathy is by her side when Ren needs her the most, helping her cross the bridge between childhood and womanhood in more ways than one. Parts of the book are letters from Cathy to Ren lending the reader an intimate insight to her sapphic longing.
“Humans and monsters both understand stories about magic and marvel and myth are made interesting by their stemming from trauma and violence and blood. How can one grow without pain?”
Often classified as “body horror”, Chlorine delves into not only the strict diets, body strength and appearance and restrictive suits swimmers must squeeze into, but also about the changes and sometimes horrific experiences that women go through in their bodies. When author Jade Song was interviewed about her take on the body horror found in this book she stated, “It’s a fact that menstruation requires you to expel three to six tablespoons of blood a month. Right? How is that not horror? So if I were to write a coming of age story where someone, for example, gets their first period, or where an athlete is forced to expose their body in a swimsuit at a very young age, or is forced to obey the whims of a swim coach to mold their body into a certain form to have a better athletic performance, there’s no way not to make that body horror, you know? If I was going to write an honest portrayal of growing up, of coming of age, there has to be some form of body horror, because there’s no way to write an honest portrayal of that experience of growing up without including some of that.”
As Ren’s body changes throughout the book, her swim coach, Jim, comments that women’s curves do not lend themselves well to swimming fast. This isn’t the first (or last) time Jim comments about her and her teammates’ bodies. He also tells them not to dress “too slutty”. As a young teen, Ren is vulnerable and still learning how to create and maintain boundaries as she explores the power dynamics between her and Jim, and the romantic interests in her life. She strives to be the best on the team and Coach Jim’s favorite and will do anything possible to make that happen, even if it means jeopardizing her health and safety. Ren’s obsession for perfection escalates throughout the book culminating in a jaw dropping scene that will make you gasp and cringe.
At only 237 pages, this book covers themes of racism, coach-athlete relationships, mental illness, obsession, finding one’s purpose, puberty, the immigrant experience, and living and surviving in modern society. As soon as I finished reading this book, I immediately started it over reading it twice over the course of three days looking for things I missed, as Song is able to say so much with so few words. Ren’s metamorphosis is one to remember.
"It takes the idea of identity and pushes it to the max. You could call it defiant, but I would rather say it is strong. Takes its needle to the coming of age trope and sews a new pattern."
WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING
"Like the scent of chlorine on one’s skin, this not-to-be-missed debut novel lingers.” - Library Journal, starred review
"Song’s debut is a strikingly original coming-of-age story... Full of contradictions, magnificently balancing and remarkably sustaining wonder with dread and magical realism with harsh reality, with a heartbreakingly beautiful and intensely uneasy tone, this is a story that will hold readers in its thrall. Ripe for discussion, Chlorine is a great choice for fans of weird, immersive, female-driven body horror by authors like Julia Armfield, Cassandra Khaw, and Carmen Maria Machado." - Booklist, starred review
"Song’s body horror here somehow accurately mirrors the terrifying process of puberty in a coming-of-age story that’s not for the faint of heart." - Buzzfeed, 2023 Books You Should Read
"This book was viscerally unnerving and I could not put it down." - Sarah Gailey, bestselling author of The Echo Wife
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Song is a recent recipient of the Alex Award 2024, which is given out each year for “adult books with special appeal to teen readers” by The Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association (ALA).
Jade Song is a writer, art director, and artist. Her debut novel Chlorine was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins (US) and Footnote Press (UK) in 2023 and will be translated into Chinese and French. Chlorine was selected as a New York Times Editor’s Choice, lauded as "visionary and disturbing," and listed as a must-read book by Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, and other outlets. Their art direction work has been awarded by and featured in Campaign US, The Shortys, Bustle, and AdAge, among others. She lives in New York City.
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