Sailor Twain is a gorgeous, haunting graphic novel about erotic obsession. It’s frequently described as a romance but that’s not exactly true – certainly not in the sense of a romance novel, in which there are real relationships and a happy ending. In Sailor Twain, everything that happens is layered and ambiguous. The characters have relationships not so much with each other as with ideas of each other – no one can know another’s true self. And the ending is bittersweet at best.
Sailor Twain tells the story of a river boat captain (no relation to Mark Twain, although this is not the only literary allusion in the story). Twain runs a steam powered river boat on the Hudson River during The Gilded Age (the period in the USA spanning the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s). One night he rescues a mermaid who has been harpooned. He hides her in her cabin while she heals and he becomes increasingly obsessed with her. He makes her promise never to sing to him, knowing that her song will trap him – but then he can’t stop wondering what her song sounds like.
In this story, everyone has a secret. Twain has a huge secret, obviously, in the sense that he has a naked mermaid living in his room. But the river boat’s owner, who appears to be a thoughtless, carefree womanizer, also has secrets. So does the engineer. So does the popular author with whom the boat’s owner corresponds. So does the mermaid. And everyone has relationships, whether friendly, professional, or romantic, not with people as they are, but with their ideas of who people are.
The book is pervaded with two kinds of imagery (often overlapping): dream imagery, and erotic imagery. The mermaid never covers her breasts – they are so prominently and permanently on display that eventually I stopped seeing them. Sexuality is presented as both healing and threatening. The mermaid and her literally naked sexuality is unstable, unpredictable, and scary. Yet Twain’s marriage is seen as at its most positive when Twain and his wife are sexually active, and the boat owner’s philandering proves to have hidden motives and unexpected depth. Sex is also linked to creativity. Twain needs to keep the mermaid on board because her presence makes him able to write, starting with the first time they kiss:
This is a richly layered graphic novel that deserves slow, careful reading and re-reading. It’s full of allusions and puzzles. The story is quiet and seductive and dreamlike. This is not a book that you should read quickly because you have a ton of books on your list to review and you’re in a hurry *cough*. Savor this book on a rainy day with a good cup of cocoa.