Skin of the Sea
Fantasy books are not my favorites; however, Natasha Bowen’s Skin of the Sea is an exception. The book is a wonderful read and a good introduction to the Yoruba religion, specific gods and their functions to maintain society. The novel’s setting is Yorubaland, Nigeria during the 15th century at the beginning of the European slave trade when the Portuguese trafficked West Africans to the Americas as plantation laborers.
The novel’s main character is Simi, a teenage human girl that the orisha Yemoya has transformed into one of her Mami Wata mermaids. Simi’s assigned task is to convey souls who die at sea to Olodumare, the Supreme Creator. Semi dutifully performs her task until she encounters Kola, a boy who is still alive when tossed overboard from a slave ship. Simi saves him, an act disrupts the order of the sea, threatens all Mami Water mermaids and angers Yemoja. The events in the novel follow Simi and Kola’s journey to Olodumare to make amends and set life for humans and gods back to normal. To achieve their goals, the teens must appease the gods by doing different activities. They receive help along the way but the helpers are not always beneficial even in human form.
This novel has some challenges for the novice reader of Yoruba culture. There is no list of the various Yoruba gods and their functions. Consequently, the reader needs to keep a running list while proceeding through the novel. Also although I promote bilingual components within a work, this author/editor does not separate the Yoruba text from the English text. As a result, the reader may not realize that their? actually is a translation. Even as a reader of Yoruba, I stumbled over sections and found marking the Yoruba in a colored pencil helpful. It would be helpful to add more Yoruba in a sequel and provide a glossary of basic speech (greetings, numbers, foods, people) so the reader becomes familiar with the tones and diacritical marks of the language. In addition, a map for the points and features of Semi’s journey through Yorubaland would be helpful..
Bowen does provide a short academic bibliography. For readers seeking more information, this list is a good start.
Reviewed by Patricia Kuntz, Ph. D.
Published in Africa Access Review (August 21, 2022)
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