Reed's Recommendation Corner: The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw


The background is red and black, with the text threaded through two figures standing back to back. One is a plague doctor with a cane or walking stick and the other is a mermaid with sharp teeth, leaning against a pile of skulls while holding one upside down in their hand. The text is in yellow.

CW: Body horror, implied child murder, child abuse

For those of us who grew up watching Ursula give Ariel her legs, we sometimes forget that the Disney version was based on a Hans Christian Andersen version of the story (called "Den Lille HavFraue" in Danish) that did not have such a happy ending. The mermaid in that story is searching for both an immortal soul and the love of her prince, but finds neither and dissipates into foam on the sea because of her deal with a sea witch. 

Ursula from Disney's Little Mermaid putting on red lipstick
Ursula is my Drag Mom. Honest.

The Salt Grows Heavy takes that story, mixes it up, and tosses in a side of gore and body horror. It takes place after the fall of the king's kingdom to the hunger of the mermaid's daughters. She joins a mysterious plague doctor and begins to follow them. They end up coming across a village of children that are like something out of Lord of the Flies. It's less a sequel and more a continuation of a story that was twisted to fit other people's narratives. 

The book is relatively short, but it packs a REAL punch. Not only does it challenge our ideas of what we know about this particular story, it combines several other potential fairy tales and stories in their darker tones. Khaw's ability to weave prose evokes not only the horror of a forced marriage and the death of children for sinister means, but the longing of two people ripped from all they know and used for other people's gain. 

I highly suggest you read past the acknowledgements as well, as there is a bonus story that fills in a few of the gaps for the rest of this book. 

If you enjoy this novel, I also suggest you check out Khaw's Nothing But Blackened Teeth.