Friendship & family bound by more than blood as the highest form of love? Check. Top-notch worldbuilding with fantasy fully integrated into the modern day? Check. Unapologetic acknowledgement of systemic racism and police brutality as more than just a metaphor? Check. LITERAL Black Girl Magic? Check. A Song Below Water is a balm on the soul.
The world of A Song Before Water is incredibly like our own, with a few key differences. The primary one being that many of the fantastic beings of legend that are in our world relegated to myth are instead fully realized and recognized here. That recognition, however, comes at a cost. For protagonist Tavia, the cost is that she must keep her status as a siren completely secret. While at one time sirens were known across a spectrum of identities, in the present time they are exclusively known to be Black women. This extra layer of persecution is a major theme; it uses the fantastical context as a bridge to show how Black lives, and particularly the lives of Black women, are disregarded and undervalued.
There are several plot threads within A Song Below Water that drive the story forward, namely several mysteries going on in the life of Effie, the other protagonist. As Effie and Tavia trade narration from chapter to chapter we see how Tavia struggles to hide her nature as a siren, and Effie attempts to discover more about the history of her parents and what could be the cause of a number of strange symptoms that she has been living with and get worse and worse as we dive deeper into her narrative. One thing I enjoyed about A Song Below Water was that there was a well-managed equilibrium between the book’s role as an adventure novel, as a novel about friendship and solidarity, as a book about the complexities of teenage romance, a novel about the meaning of family, and through it all a novel that shows how race and racism fit into our everyday lives.
It often seems as though books either have to center race and racism or exist in a vacuum and push it to the side, but I appreciated how rather than taking either of those approaches Morrow truly devoted herself to integrating her fantasy with reality. This is a book that is kicked off with the murder of a Black woman and the refrain #SayHerName. The main characters attend a protest for a young Black man that was killed, and while sirens and a gargoyle are eventually involved, there is a devotion throughout the text to the many Black lives that have been lost, including explicit mention of the Black Lives Matter movement. A Song Below Water also acknowledges many moments and small instances of systemic microaggressions, which is something that I welcome as I am starting to see it more in books but found quite rare in my reading when younger.
Another thing I enjoyed about A Song Below Water was its brevity. The pacing of this text was, I believe, quite phenomenal as there did not seem to be a word wasted as I found myself captivated by every line. That many of those lines were unflinching in their honesty and truth made me feel as though at times they could have been thoughts in my own head. In some ways it is hard to believe that A Song Below Water was not written with certain aspects of 2020 in mind. At one point in her narration Tavia thinks to herself:
“I can’t decide whether I’m glad they’re listening or whether I’m annoyed that the conversation’s gone unheard for so many years. I think I’m both.”— p. 187
That has honestly been my vibe for so much of the past few weeks and months at this point. That the young Black woman killed was named Rhona Taylor — a different name and a different cause of death but still so close to the name Breonna Taylor — stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it. I would thank the author for never naming the man who murdered Rhona, but as that is the only choice I can fathom as acceptable in a first-person narrative such as this I don’t know that there would be a point to that.
I loved this book, plain and simple, and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone, and shove it in all your hands if I could.
Note: Many thanks to Alaina Lavoie (@alainaskeys on Twitter & Instagram) who bought me this book after I DM’d them because they offered to buy copies of a few different recently published books by Black authors and send them to Black folx who sent them a message on Twitter.