The Seawomen by Chloe Timms

Blurb

Esta has known nothing but Eden’s Isle her whole life. After a fire left her orphaned and badly scarred, Esta was raised by her grandmother in a deeply religious society who cut itself off from the mainland in the name of salvation. Here, fear rules: fear of damnation, fear of the outside world and fear of what lurks beneath the water – a corrupting evil the islanders call the Seawoman. 

But Esta wants more than a life where touching the water risks corruption, where her every move is watched and women are controlled in every aspect of their lives. Married off, the women of the island must conceive a child within their appointed motheryear or be marked as cursed and cast into the sea as a sacrifice in an act called the Untethering. 

When Esta witnesses a woman Untethered she sees a future to fear. Her fate awaits, a loveless marriage, her motheryear declared. And after a brief taste of freedom, the insular world Esta knows begins o unravel…

Book Stats

Format: ebook
Length: 320 pages (print edition)
Published: 2022
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Source: NetGalley

Goodreads

Content warnings: forced marriage, sexual assault, homophobia

Review

I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinions. 

I’m not sure what I was expecting going into The Seawomen. As I often do, between requesting the book and reading it, I had forgotten what the blurb said. I simply knew from the title that it would have something to do with the sea, and likely mermaids. 

This book isn’t about mermaids. It’s set on an island, where the Seawoman (essentially mermaids) are demonised. The islanders cast them into the role of the devil, assigning them an ability to exert a malign influence over the female population. This made me think of the witch trials, and the accusations of witchcraft that women have endured over the centuries.

A few chapters in though, I picked up on the dystopian elements of this book. The joy for me in this book was the unfolding of the mysteries that we are presented with in the first few chapters. So I don’t want to give too many spoilers. So all I will say is the book is a blend of dystopia and magical realism. There is definitely a requirement to suspend disbelief in The Seawoman. Which I found a little jarring, but I think in the end worked really well.

What The Seawomen is about, though, is the oppression of women. The society living on this island values women for their ability to bear children, and little else. They are raised to become wives to men they don’t always get to choose, and it is seen as their sacred duty to then produce children. If they don’t, they face accusations of falling under the influence of the Seawomen. The islanders see the women’s inability to become pregnant as God rejecting them.. They then ‘Untether’ them, casting them into the sea to drown. The book opens with this image, of the islanders sending a woman to her death. It’s quite harrowing to read. 

As we learn more about the island and its inhabitants, it becomes easy to see the motivation behind these lies that the men who rule the island are telling about the Seawomen. The ‘Ministers’, as they are called, are invested in the women staying under their control. If the women lose their fear of the sea, they might decide there’s a better life out there beyond the island. Without the women to bear children for them, the ‘Ministers’ version of an ‘idyllic’ society would be over. They would lose their control.

Timms writes the story from a first person point of view, from Esta’s perspective. This adds to the tension in the story, as Timms keeps us, quite literally, in the moment with Esta. Timms makes it clear that Esta is telling this story from some point in the future. So we get hints towards what is to come. We do get to the future point Esta is telling the story from, so this build up of tension does come to a satisfying conclusion. I couldn’t see how the book was going to end until the last few pages, which I liked. The story never felt predictable, yet Timms never fully surprised me either.

I would say the book’s biggest strength is how the author builds a dark, foreboding atmosphere. I think the combination of the weather (cold and stormy) as well as the sense of foreboding the narrative creates, really pulled me into the setting. Timms does a good job of describing the world without giving the reader too much detail and losing their interest. The fear the characters are feeling really comes off the page, so I felt afraid for Esta throughout the narrative. Timms describes the process of ‘Untethering’ and the fears of the women on the island in a cool, practical way, which makes it all the more chilling. 

The story does move at a slow pace, which I think for a book within the literary dystopian genre, is okay. It’s definitely a slow burn, each reveal taking it’s time. This adds to the atmosphere as well. I do wish that Timms had explored the situation of the men on the island a little more.

There is a moment when Esta thinks that her arranged-husband is just as trapped as she is within the system. There is also a male character who does suffer at the hands of the same men the women do. But I felt that for most of the narrative, Timms portrayed the men as a monolith, as all having the same attitudes of those at the top of hierarchy. Though I understand that she probably did this for a heightened effect, I still would have liked a little more nuance. I think this is a trap a lot of feminist fiction can fall into. And this book is most certainly feminist. 

The Seawomen did remind me of a couple of other dystopian books: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood and The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh. Both are also about women’s oppression. The Water Cure in particular does have the same feeling of isolation, as a result of it’s island setting. It tells the story of a single family isolated from, and afraid of, the outside world. It was interesting to read on Chloe Timm’s blog that she did take inspiration from these two books, as well as several others, when writing The Seawomen. The blog post is an interesting read. It’s a good look into the work an author often does for a novel. So I’d encourage you to read it if you’re at all interested in writing. 

Overall, I really enjoyed The Seawoman. It’s a slow book, but builds a compelling, dark, and at times horrid atmosphere. I would recommend it to fans of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Water Cure, as it sits comfortably in that literary dystopian genre. 

About Chloe Timms: Chloe Timms is a writer from the Kent coast. After a career in teaching, Chloe studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent and won a scholarship for the Faber Academy where she completed their six-month novel writing course. Chloe is passionate about disability rights, having been diagnosed with the condition Spinal Muscular Atrophy at 18 months old. She has campaigned on a number of crucial issues. The Seawomen is her first novel.

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