The Fish Princess

by Irene Watts, Steve Mennie,
24 pages,
ISBN: 0887763669

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Children`s Books
by Donna Nurse

The illustration on the cover of The Fish Princess immediately intrigues. It depicts a skimpily clad girl sitting cross-legged on a deserted beach. A few feet away, black waves slap against a solitary row-boat that rests partly upon the shore. The unusual juxtaposition of the girl and the skiff captures our attention, for we are used to conventions that feature either the one or the other. The girl's longing seaward glance recalls fairy-tales of penitent mermaids defrauded of their fins. At the same time, the row-boat invokes allegories against the elements. In The Fish Princess, her first picture-book, the author and playwright Irene Watts attempts to blend these two quite distinct genres: an interesting literary experiment that unfortunately meets with limited success.

The Fish Princess tells the story of an old fisherman who finds a baby girl in an abandoned row-boat that washes ashore after a storm. The old man designates himself her grandfather, saying, "The sea has sent you to comfort me." Although the villagers shun him for adopting the child, he raises her happily, teaching her how to cast nets and how to recognize signs of dangerous weather. The pair revel in their shared affinity for the sea, an attachment which, for the girl, is clearly mystical.

Watts's protagonists serve more as archetypes than as full-fledged characters. The narrator refers to them throughout as only "the grandfather" and "the girl" or "she". And like the best of traditional raconteurs, Watts strips her story down to its barest components. Yet she has not quite mastered the skill of conveying a minimalist plot. Her attempts to economize sometimes result in awkward sentences. ("Unheeding of their warning voices, the fishermen carried the baby indoors.") In addition, the spareness of her prose actually exaggerates random lapses in logic. At one point, the girl, noting an abundance of fish in the village, returns a king salmon to the sea. It makes no narrative sense when her neighbours complain that the loss may cause them to starve.

Steve Mennie's arresting illustrations carry this book. His dim-silver, rose-tinted images of the girl and the surrounding seascape emphasize the story's dreamlike quality. Indeed, Mennie's pictures occasionally slip into the surreal-particularly his delineation of drops of salmon blood, which sit discreetly on the girl's outstretched palm like so many smarties and candy kisses. The pictures appear sandbrushed; not only in their neutral hues, but also in their illusionary graininess.

In some ways, Mennie's style approximates that of the painter Alex Colville. The works of both tend toward a very deliberate composition of scenes and both reveal a preoccupation with the geometric symmetry of architectural structures, especially windows.

His illustrations very nearly compensate for the shortcomings of the text. But not quite. For what proves most frustrating about The Fish Princess is the way that both the pictures and the early part of the text create false expectations. The girl's mysterious love of the sea and her uncanny bond with the fisherman is a premise that promises a tale with a twist. But in the end she merely re-encounters the King Salmon, who then metamorphoses into a charming young man.

Despite early clues to the contrary, Watts traps her fish princess in an old and tired story-of wonderfully compelling heroines who are only able to find lasting happiness in the arms of a prince. l

Donna Nurse lives in Toronto.


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