Deep below the waves, the merfolk sing. Only one remembers their past. Only one bears the burden of the truth – and Yetu is crumbling under her terrible responsibility…
The Deep is a beguiling novella by Rivers Solomon, who was invited to bring to narrative life a world first conceived by Drexciya in the late 90s and first expressed in words in clipping’s Hugo award-nominated song of the same name. I think it takes courage to join any shared world project and even more to re-imagine one so acclaimed (perhaps that’s just me – I’d be so worried about unrecognised sacred cows), but if Solomon had any nerves about this they aren’t evident from the uncompromising result.
Enter the world of the wajinru, born of the drowning wombs of pregnant women thrown overboard en route to America. Rescued by whales, the babies thrived beneath the waves, adapting to their new environment in ways the murderous slavers could never have imagined. The fish-tailed wajinru are true children of the sea; summoners of storms and killers of sharks – and men, on occasion.
Solomon’s prose is immersive, evoking the pressure of ocean depths and the movement of underwater currents; the narrative is full of swirls and eddies that reflect its environment and the emotional turmoil of our protagonist, Yetu.
Yetu is the Historian, selected by the wajinru to hold their memories. Only the Historian knows how the wajinru came to be; and they recall it in the form of the searing, first-hand experiences of the Historians who came before them. Once a year, the Historian shares her memories with her people at the Remembering; at the end of the ceremony, she takes them back, shouldering the pain of the past and releasing the wajinru to lead their care-free lives.
But Yetu isn’t coping. She is slowly but surely being overwhelmed by the memories she carries, at risk of losing her sense of self to the trauma of the past. She is in constant conflict with her well-meaning but overbearing mother, who – unequipped to understand what Yetu’s going through – seems determined to keep her daughter alive purely so she can sacrifice herself for the greater good. As the year’s Remembering draws near, Yetu’s terror mounts, until it becomes unbearable. She must turn her back on her people and the past to survive.
The Deep begins with Yetu’s struggle and then follows her as she flees her responsibilities. It makes for a complex, challenging narrative: in spite of the charged relationship between mother and child and the performative pain of Yetu’s role as Historian, it’s difficult not to read Yetu’s choice as selfish. Self-care is vital, but she can only turn her back on the wajinru by abandoning them at their most vulnerable.
At the same time, the dynamics between Historian and wajinru are so unhealthy it’s impossible not to sympathise with Yetu. It’s easy to read The Deep as a metaphor for depression or chronic illness, in part because Amaba’s responses are so teeth-grittingly familiar. She doesn’t believe how Yetu feels because she has no experience of it; she just wants her daughter to perk up and play with her friends. Yetu will never get the support she needs at home.
Instead, Yetu unexpectedly finds a sense of kinship and community with the two-legs on an island where she takes shelter. The monsters of her memories haven’t prepared her for the kindness of strangers. As she forges connections with these distant relatives, Yetu battles her guilt and self-loathing at the disaster she senses out to sea.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Deep is that Rivers Solomon can weave so many deeply-felt themes into her narrative without it feeling as overwhelmed as Yetu. It’s tackling huge questions: the nature of memory and identity; the extent to which we are defined by our ancestry and traditions, and the debt we owe them; how we come to terms with trauma; the nature of community and kinship bonds; the role – even obligation – of the individual in re-shaping their society; and the importance of compassion and mutual understanding to help us heal.
The Deep had two minor mis-steps for me. The first was stylistic: I’ve grown impatient with repetitive narratives (especially in novellas), so I found myself huffing at Yetu’s circular brooding although I appreciated it as a mechanic to illustrate how lost she was. The second was the climax, which felt thinly-drawn and rather easily resolved after the extended build-up. That said, I like the implications that sometimes we make problems bigger in our heads than they really are, and that compassion is more easily given when rooted in experience.
Overall, though, The Deep is potent stuff, told in searing, lyrical prose. Absorbing and atmospheric, I recommend reading at a single sitting – although perhaps not when you’re feeling fragile yourself. It’s a majestic contribution to an intriguing creative collaboration, and leaves me curious to see what future evolutions we may see of the Drexciya narratives.
TW: self-harm, suicidal impulses, genocide.