From the beginning, the haunting lyricism with which Ernshaw conjures her story is enough to draw readers in, and what's more, drown them entirely in beautiful language. The style blends a contemporary narrative with historical elements given through the titled chapters spread throughout the entirety of the novel. Though the narration of these titled chapters does not follow the linear action of the novel, they are just as captivating as the world seen through Penny Talbot's eyes. Penny believes deep in her bones that the three Swan sisters who were drowned in the harbor of Sparrow, Oregon 200 years ago, do indeed return each summer to drown as many teenage boys as they can. It becomes most clear that "magic was not always so linear. It was born from odium. From love. From revenge." And what begins as a story of revenge soon becomes one filled with love.
Throughout the story, tensions remain high, stakes fraught with the impending deaths of innocent boys. There is a ticking clock to keep readers swept up in the urgency of the story; the Swan season wanes toward the summer solstice, which marks the day the sisters were drowned after being accused of witchcraft so many centuries ago. Like the descendants of Salem, Marguerite, Aurora, and Hazel Swan were not witches. Yet, they're resurrected every summer, taking over the bodies of young girls in town before slipping from the skins back to the ocean below. It's a rather dire set of circumstances in a town that knows entirely too much of their tragic fates, best explained within the narrative:
"Murder. That's precisely what it is. Calling it a curse does not unmake the truth of what happens here each year...It's as predictable as the tide and the moon. It ebbs and flows. Death comes and goes."
Held within those few lines is the essence of the story, that constant sway between life and death, killer and victim. And the villains of the story, those Swan sisters with the ability to lure boys to their deaths, are proven to be just as flawed and complicated as any good antagonist should be. What was most unexpected, however, was how their villainy washed away as their tragic fates were shared, making it hard not to accept their revenge. Best explained by Penny, "Guilt slithers through me, a thousand regrets, and I wish for things I can't have: a way to undo all the deaths, to save the people who've been lost."
The other characters within this novel are no less authentic. Everyone from Penny's grief-stricken mother to Bo, the new boy in town who hides something just as dark as the town; they all seem to hope for something better. As readers, we learn that "the truth slips between the edges of the lies." These people, like Penny, are broken. She misses her father. Her mother has been driven into darkness most maddening by the disappearance of her husband three years before, and Bo found his way to Sparrow filled with his own heartbreaks. At their core, they are all searching the shores for something. Like Bo explains:
"They're always reasons to stay. You just need to find one reason to leave."
Shea Ernshaw's strengths within this debut do not merely lie at the bottom of an ocean filled with exquisite language, intricate history, and poignant characters, but rather imbue power into the story with elements of magical realism. The notions of curses and revenge, of momentary resurrection and ghosts might be hard to comprehend amidst the contemporary small town setting. But this is the farthest thing from a summer beach read because of the elements of magical realism woven throughout the narrative in a manner that seems so easily conjured. These details act as a juxtaposition to the haunting reality of death. From the forgetful cakes Penny's best friend's mother bakes, "intended to make you forget the worst thing that's ever happened to you--to wipe away bad memories," to the way Penny and her mother are able to divine the future by reading tea leaves; there is a hint of magic in everything. This acts as a way for the reader to better comprehend the strange events of Sparrow, Oregon, and thus, too, the characters to accept that something wicked most certainly comes from the sea.
Sparrow is a mysterious place, while Penny's home at Lumiere island acts as a protection against everything happening around her. The lighthouse is able to shine light onto the murky truths beneath the waves, and as such, the island becomes its own kind of character within the novel. Just as Penny and Bo gravitate toward the orchards and cottages, the reader, too, will feel bound to the island and the veil of safety it offers against the brutality of the risen sisters.
Reading the line, "Some places are bound in by magic. Ensnared by it," this feels like truth carefully crafted to encompass the marks we leave, even after we're gone. So too, does this truth: "Ghosts remain. But sometimes, the past is the only thing keeping a place alive...But it persists, because it must. Penance is a long, unforgiving thing. It endures, for without it, the past is forgotten." Throughout this book, there were many more lines and paragraphs, which took my breath as I drowned within them, ensnared by Ernshaw's skill to take the reader deep into her characters' lives. Lines resonate long after being read. None so much as:
"Perhaps we all have some oddity, some strangeness we keep hidden along our edges, things we see the we can't explain, things we wish for, things we run from."
In the end, Shea Ernshaw's debut, The Wicked Deep, will leave readers under its eerie spell. Though this book is a standalone with a satisfying conclusion, it is clear that "endings are never so simple." And navigating this haunting tale to the last page will leave readers looking forward to whatever Ernshaw conjures next!