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Jade Song’s 'Chlorine' is a modern mermaid tale with a horrific twist

I picked up “Chlorine,” a debut novel by Jade Song, because the main character is a competitive swimmer. My son swam in middle and high school, and I think back fondly on those days — more fondly than he does, I’m sure, given the dry skin, straw hair and grueling two-a-day practices.

In Song’s novel, Ren Yu is a preschooler when her mother gives her a book of mermaid folk tales, and Ren becomes obsessed with the mythological creatures. When she tries out for her high school swim team, she believes the water is where she belongs. She envisions herself as a mermaid, streaking through the pool at top speeds and with flawless form.

Day to day, she pushes herself to succeed, driven by her own competitive drive as well as her often creepy swim coach, Jim. Anyone familiar with competitive swimming will recognize and possibly identify with Song’s descriptions of that world — the tighter-than-skin racing suits, the carbo-load dinners and the ever-present scent of chlorine. Not to mention the unrelenting pressure of the clock. Ren and a fellow swimmer, Cathy, forge a friendship that develops into more.

But be warned: This novel is no mermaid Disney movie. As Ren pursues perfection in the pool, her story suddenly transforms into a dark horror tale, and we come face-to-face — or tail-to-tail — with the grotesque consequences of one girl’s drive to win at any cost. Song’s excellent writing pushes the narrative along toward its disturbing climax, and the innovative story structure continually hints at what happens next without giving anything away.

“Chlorine” is an exceptional debut that’s not for the faint of heart. It blurs the line between literary fiction, horror and sapphic romance, with a psychological spiral that leaves you gasping for air.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.