After her life is upended by divorce and a cross-country move, 16-year-old Saskia Brown feels like an outsider at her new school—not only is she a transplant, but she’s also biracial in a population of mostly white students. One day while visiting her only friend at her part-time library job, Saskia encounters a vial of liquid mercury, then touches an old daguerreotype—the precursor of the modern-day photograph—and makes a startling discovery. She is somehow able to visit the man in the portrait: Robert Cornelius, a brilliant young inventor from the nineteenth century. The hitch: she can see him only in her dreams.
Saskia shares her revelation with some classmates, hoping to find connection and friendship among strangers. Under her guidance, the other girls steal portraits of young men from a local college’s daguerreotype collection and try the dangerous experiment for themselves. Soon, they each form a bond with their own “Mercury Boy,” from an injured Union soldier to a charming pickpocket in New York City.
At night, the girls visit the boys in their dreams. During the day, they hold clandestine meetings of their new secret society. At first, the Mercury Boys Club is a thrilling diversion from their troubled everyday lives, but it’s not long before jealousy, violence and secrets threaten everything the girls hold dear.
After she plays with some mercury and sees the original image, that night, she has a vivid dream of traveling back in time and speaking with him. When she tells some other new friends, they decide to form a club and take more daguerreotypes and mercury to have their own dreams, forming the Mercury Boys Club. As the club continues, it evolves into something dangerous and deadly.
What I loved: This was such a unique and unusual premise that brings snapshots of the past to life and creates an interest in daguerreotypes. The pasts that are experienced are also described and really fascinating, always with an element of a question about whether they are real or a hallucination. This was a riveting read for this reason, trying to understand the connections with mercury and the danger which these teens have thrown themselves in, now escalating with the club and its formidable rules.
The themes around friendship, revenge, possessiveness, belonging, hazing, infidelity, and the desire for something special merit the discussion. The ability to enter into a group that becomes cult-like, with deadly punishments, is always really intriguing and worth examining the importance of getting out. The story really takes on a sinister tone that increases towards the end of the story.
What left me wanting more: There were a few topics that I found troubling. The main character was half-Black and seemed to have some internalized racism. It was not often mentioned, but I think a deeper discussion of this would have been helpful. Additionally, one of the girls had broken up with a modern day boy, who seemed to be a bit possessive and intrusive, and instead of discussing this, her conversations with Saskia seemed to evolve towards that being the better relationship and praising his intrusiveness as love. I would have appreciated more discussion about not owing anyone your time or effort, and if it feels uncomfortable, that probably means it's not healthy. For another relationship, it was blamed and internalized by another character about a connection with a boy, who was frequently on/off with another girl (and was off when the connection happened), with the heap of responsibility laid onto the girl for it, when she should not have born that responsibility of knowing everything and staying away from seemingly claimed boys (even if not actively together). It was just an odd dynamic.
I was also troubled by the theft (they call it borrowing, but no apparent intent to return) of the daguerreotypes, which eventually ends in job loss. This was mentioned, but it is really more significant than that, especially since this girl needed that job and was pushed into the thefts. I also would have appreciated more closure at the end about the resolution of all of this around the daguerreotypes and what happened with one girl in particular, leaving the ending feeling a bit unsatisfying.
Final verdict: A unique and thought-provoking YA magical realism, MERCURY BOYS is an unexpected story about group culture and friendship with an intriguing combination of past and present.