Google+ Bookslingers Blog: Review: Ingo by Helen Dunmore

Review: Ingo by Helen Dunmore

I am always tempted to write the title of this book with an exclamation point. Ingo! I have no idea why.

I picked up this book, along with two of its sequels, a year or two ago on one of my carefully-regulated-because-I-also-need-to-buy-food (and-even-more-strictly-regulated-since-I-started-buying-comics-again) expeditions to Kidsbooks. I think it was around the time that the Next Big Thing in YA was going to be mermaids (they changed their minds again recently; apparently it is now going to be zombies). I did not, however, pick up this book because of its potential Next-Big-Thing-ness. I picked it up because I have a curious weakness to books set in places in the British Isles that are not London and environs; probably some residual effects of my brief undergraduate foray into Celtic Studies. One day I will have read excellent YA genre-fiction books set in all five Celtic Countries (So far I am missing the Isle of Man and Breton. I do not ever expect to swing Breton. If you know of books that will prove me wrong, please let me know!).

This particular book is set in Cornwall. One of my other favourite books, The Little Country by Charles De Lint (a book I seem to have tragically misplaced), is also set in Cornwall! (Fun fact: Cornwall in Cornish is kernow. Isn't that cool? Careful; if you stand still long enough I can still quote the names of all five Celtic Countries in their native tongues.) Also, mermaids. Mermaids are cool. This looked earthy and mysterious. "Okay," I said. "I'm in." And bought the first three.

Anyway the point was... mermaids. For some reason I'm always a little skeptical about mermaids. Maybe because I prefer my magical fantasy a little more grounded, no pun intended. But that's exactly what this was! Ingo is the story of Sapphire and her brother Conor, who live in a village in Cornwall, in a cottage by the sea. It's as idyllic as you might imagine, at least on the surface, but Sapphire and Conor's lives are plagued by Dark Family Secrets of my very favourite kind; I call it Secret Legacy. In this case...

...their dad was a merman! And they might be, too!

Maybe. Sort of. Probably. Their mum is stubbornly... um, mum on the subject (I'M SORRY). All they know for sure is that one day not long ago, Dad went down to the cove and never came back.

I get frustrated sometimes with stories told out of order, but this is a case of that being done particularly well. It's not exactly non-linear, but peppered throughout the story are Sapphy's memories of her father, of his disappearance, of the way nobody wants to talk about it. And their father's disappearance is all tied up in the legend of mermaid of Zennor (the name of their village), about a man who lost his heart to a mermaid, went with her into the sea - Ingo - and disappeared.

I love, love, love stories about deep dark family secrets. But what I like best are stories where the secret is some special nature; where they're secretly witches, or werewolves, or long-lost royalty, and Mum and Dad or Auntie or Cruel Grandma or Guardian Title Here just never said, for whatever reason. In this case the not-exactly-linear nature of the story is great, because the story is all about Sapphire piecing things together from her memories, from stories her father told her, and from what's happening around her, and finally figuring out the truth. And in the present-day worrying things are happening. The more Sapphire finds out about her family, about her father, the less she thinks she knows about herself; the less in-control she feels. Her sense of displacement is powerful and really well-conveyed. There's also a great sense of double-vision, because as the reader you can see the places where Sapphy's judgement is impaired even while you understand her reasoning; Sapphy worries about Conor becoming more and more distant, afraid he'll disappear like their father did, even though once things come to a head, she's the one who's tempted to lose herself to Ingo; to the sea.

Other things I like about this book: Dunmore's take on mermaids! Also their sass. Mermaid sass! Brilliant. And I really like the instinctive way magic is described, or not-described. Everything feels very organic and necessary without a lot of obfuscating rules and explanations. The underlying atmosphere is just right for the sort of story being told, where everything is obscured behind a warm-coloured summer haze.

Add the air of cozy mystery I like best about my favourite mystery novels - soft-edged like a well-worn book cover - and you have a book that is a great way to spend an afternoon.

Though if you are like Miss Corene, it might just give you one more reason to avoid the ocean.