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Book Review: Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli

“And oh, I want so much to sing. I tell myself no. But it is so hard to keep silent. So hard.” So says Sirena, the title character in Donna Jo Napoli’s young adult novel, a story of love between a young Greek soldier and a mermaid during the Trojan War.

[i font=”v35″ code=”e12d” size=”36px” onsize=”44px” color=”#ffffff” oncolor=”#ffffff” padding=”16px” onpadding=”12px” bgtype=”color” bg1=”#53727b” bg2=”#53727b” onbg1=”#c02942″ onbg2=”#c02942″ borderwidth = “1px” bordercolor = “transparent” borderstyle = “solid” borderradius = “50%” effect = “spin” link = “” target = “self” align = “none” margin = “4px 15px 0px 0px”]Sirena and her sisters are the result of a coupling between Eros and a parrotfish, and their only way to win immortality is to win the love of a human man.Day after day, Sirena and her sisters lounge on the rocks of their island and sing to lure the sailors of passing ships to come and be with them so that they might gain immortality. On a fateful day, though, a group of sailors sees through their ruse, and Sirena witnesses the murder of one of her sisters at their hands. Traumatized and sickened at her sisters’ plans to use their voices to lure and deceive the sailors into loving them, Sirena leaves everything behind and resolves to live in solitude on the island of Lemnos.

Her solitude is interrupted, though, by the arrival of a Greek ship on her island. The sailors leave a dying man who has suffered a serpent bite there to die. Sirena, though, is able to cure the wound, and she saves the young soldier’s life. Once the two meet, she discovers that he is Philoctetes, a young man who was once the protege of Heracles himself and who has in his possession Heracles’ bow and arrows. The passing ship had been on its way to join the other Greeks to fight the Trojan War, but now, it is clear that Philoctetes’s fate has changed.

Philoctetes and Sirena become fast friends, and then, as time passes, they eventually fall in love, which earns Sirena her immortality. Yet Philoctetes is still mortal, and while he also loves Sirena, he has a destiny and a fate that could change the tide of the war forever. Sirena, who truly loves Philoctetes, learns of this from the sea goddess Doris, and she must decide whether or not to let Philoctetes leave the island and fulfill his destiny or allow him to live on the island with her as long as the rest of his life allows, leaving her alone once more when he dies.

Sirena’s story is a retelling of tales such as The Little Mermaid and Undine, but in this instance, Sirena has much more agency, and she grows to understand the give and take of love and relationships. Unlike her sisters, who simply see human men and the love they have to give as a vehicle to immortality, Sirena understands that the gift of immortality came with Philoctetes’ love for her, and that allowing him to leave the island to go to Troy and later seek treatment for the wound that plagues him so are the dearest gifts she can give him in return. And as it’s impossible to predict what fate will bring Philoctetes after all of this happens, it does leave some possibility open for his return to Sirena, though she understands that this might not happen. Even after his passing, she knows that she, unlike her sisters, has known true love with him, and that she will always love him, which is one thing that makes her eternal existence all the more bearable.

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