Start: July 4, 2020
Finish: July 14, 2020
Synopsis: In a society determined to keep her under lock and key, Tavia must hide her silent powers.
Meanwhile, Effie is fighting her own family struggles, as she is pitted against literal demons from her past. Together these best friends must navigate the perils of high school’s junior year.
But everything changes in the aftermath of a siren murder trial that rocks the nation, when Tavia accidentally lets out her magical voice at the worst possible moment.
Soon nothing in Portland, Oregon, seems safe. To save themselves from drowning, Tavia and Effie’s unbreakable sisterhood must prove to be the strongest magic of all. [via back cover]
I want to preface this by saying I am NOT the intended audience for this book and I’m fully aware that my experiences as an adult will color the way I respond to this book (or any Young Adult narrative.) Overall, I love A Song Below Water, but I know some of my enjoyment was diminished by the fact that I was an adult reading a book aimed at young adults.
Now on to the review:
At it’s core, A Song Below Water, is a love letter to and a testament to the importance of Black girl friendships and sisterhood. As a Black woman with many significant relationships to other Black woman (most of which started in middle and high school), I appreciate Bethany C. Morrow’s depiction of a friendship that’s based in mutual respect, love and dedication. And I love how she weaves various mythologies into the narrative, while touching on themes of Black girlhood, family secrets and power and dangers that come from using your voice.
The strongest aspect of this narrative is the relationship between ‘sisters’ Tavia and Effie. The novel is written with a dual POV and we see just how much these girls meant to each other. They constantly uplifted and supported each other, even when the larger world tried to shrink them or make them feel insignificant. They confided in each other, never held grudges and leaned on one another. Though they share no DNA, Effie and Tavia claim the ‘sister’ title and it’s clear their bond runs deep.
I try to think of all the gentle prompts Dr. Randall might use to pry her open. The ones she hated because it felt like he was trying to trick or trap her, even though she knows better. Effie goes back and forth between being okay with needing outside help, and feeling forced; sometimes Dr. Randall was a trusted confidante and sometimes she hoped she never saw him again. I think maybe both were true, but she’s got a right to process it however she wants, and for the last little while she hasn’t wanted to see him. So rather than trying to be her therapist–especially in light of my own baggage–I decide to be her sister instead.
The novels spends a significant amount of time highlighting the strength of this relationship that you have no choice but to be invested in Effie and Tavia’s development.
For so long Black women and girls have only been able to display near impossible levels of strength on the page or the screen. But in both Tavia and Effie, we get to see girls who are emotional, afraid, anxious and so many other complex emotions Black girls are told they can’t experience. Both characters struggle with some semblance of identity and how the world sees it as a threat. Tavia is a siren who must hide her abilities away and rely on a network of people to protect her. Effie experiences uncontrollable physical changes and seeks to discover the truth of who she is. Instead of brushing off every misstep or or ignoring the emotional fallout from certain outcomes, both girls express their doubts and concerns. I read Effie as a highly anxious character as she often literally hid behind her twists when things became uncomfortable for her. Both girls played an active role in moving the narrative forward, but it was nice seeing them react to the issues that bothered them.
The beauty (that’s laced with a tinge of tragedy) of stories like A Song Below Water is that it reminds readers, specifically young women, that in the real world there are no ‘Chosen Ones.’ At the end of the story, Tavia acknowledges that she changed the hearts of the people in Portland, but she also recognizes that the change is more than likely a temporary one. She and Effie don’t carry the burden of restructuring the world and ending all systems of oppression. If she can positively effect the mind’s of people in her own town, then she’s secured a valuable win no matter how temporary it may be. Though there are fantastical elements to this story, the heart of it is grounded in reality and is a reflection of our own world. While it would be easy for a single person to come forward and eradicate all of the ‘-isms’ that plague our world, it’s not realistic. It takes a community or a network of people to uproot these systems. This is evident in the protest scenes where Tavia revels in being a part of something bigger than her, something that feels whole and welcoming:
It happened so quickly. I’m deep in the crowd now and I don’t remember how I got here, I just keep pressing closer. The curdle in my stomach is gone, replaced by a kind of peace that startles me[…]
But it feels like therapy, not chaos. I’ve lost Allie and the others. Effie and Wallace are back where I started, and I’m in a throng of people so close I can’t tell the difference between their sweat and mine.
But I can breathe. I’ve seen dozens more I AM SIREN shirts, but now that it’s here among what feels like a concentration of every person of color in the Pacific Northwest, it makes sense. It doesn’t feel like a disservice to Kenyon’s memory, and it doesn’t seem a distraction. Kenyon and Rhoda (and Camilla, if that’s who the shirts are for) were from the same community, and so am I.
Having grown up with and loving the ‘Chosen One’ YA narratives that dominated the market in the early 2000s and 2010s, I can admit there is something freeing about reading stories that say ‘it’s not the one that will save us, but the MANY.’ I think this narrative is important now when we see the continued Black Lives Matter protests that are occurring across the country.
I wish the ending was a few pages longer. That would have propelled this from a 4-star review to a 5-star review. While I wasn’t expecting a big, climatic, action-packed final showdown, I was disappointed that the answers to some of the biggest mysteries were easily given away. The story’s resolution occurred in conversations and the main characters, Effie in particular, were placed in a passive role. I was moved by the story’s final scene, but it was also dampened by the ease in which we the readers learned the truth behind some of the secrets.
Despite by lukewarm reaction to the ending, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My biggest regret with A Song Below Water is that I no longer work in a high school and thus can’t place this in the hands of readers who would adore this story. Teenaged me would have loved this book and would have read it over and over. Adult me loves this tale and appreciate how Morrow portrays the importance of Black girlhood and Black girl friendships. Tavie and Effie understood each other in ways that can only come from having a similar lived experience and background. This book can be read by anyone, but this is a story that’s truly meant for Black girls, particularly Black girls who grew up not trusting their own voices or the power behind it. If you have any interest in A Song Below Water, I strongly encourage you to purchase or borrow this book!
Buy it here! (Non-Affiliate link)