Novel ‘Sirena’ Charms As Simple Myth Retelling

by Mindy Borie

Rereading a book I loved as a child is a lot like hunting for Easter eggs: I never really know what I’m going to find. There’s always the chance that I was incredibly mistaken about what constituted quality — when I was 11, I wasn’t mature enough to write like an adult, and I’m sure I didn’t always read like one, either. Still, there’s also the incredible possibility for magic, that I’ll still love the book and that it will take me back to that time and place of mind.

I was 11 the first time I read Donna Jo Napoli’s fantasy novel “Sirena,” and my love for it informed my reading choices for years afterward. While I remembered next to nothing about it, when a Rambler reader and fellow student offered to lend it to me for my column, I felt a happy burst of nostalgia. Yes, said my excitement, I remember that. But, still, I have a completely different set of eyes now than I did 11 years ago. I was pleased but uncertain.

“Sirena” is (I know now, but did not know initially) a creative retelling of a Greek myth. Philoctetes, Wikipedia informs me, was a prince who was lost on the way to fight in the Trojan War. Hera sent a poisonous serpent to punish him for assisting Hercules in his labors, and he was marooned on an island for 10 long, solitary years.

In Napoli’s tale, Philoctetes is left on an island with Sirena, a mermaid. She and her sisters (50 in all) are mortal demigoddesses, cursed in that they must earn the love of a human to gain immortality. To this end, they sing bewitching songs to sailors on ships. They become distracted and their ships are dashed on the rocks. After one wreck, the mermaids’ fruitless efforts result in numerous accidental deaths. Sirena, horrified, cannot bear the thought of causing more suffering, so she exiles herself to an uninhabited island. Cue Philoctetes.

It is an interesting approach to the myth of the sirens, the idea that they did not want to kill but knew no other way to entice men to love them. It is perhaps the novel’s chief selling point. It’s a delightful book, but not one I would stay up until two in the morning sobbing over (as I did in 2001). The prose is charming but not superbly skillful, and the plot lacks true drive and luster. It’s a good book, but simple. The complexity of Napoli’s other work eludes “Sirena,” which only hints tentatively at the confusing nature of love and manipulation.


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