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June 2023 book review

Shark Heart: a Love Story, by Emily Habeck

Shark Heart: A love story

Warning, spoilers!

When I read the blurb for this book I didn't take the premise too seriously, thinking a story about a man turning into a shark could only be so poignant. How incredibly wrong I was! The book is surreal, weird and wonderful.

Shark Heart follows the lives of two characters affected by a medical phenomenon of animal mutation; a gradual onset of symptoms that heralds the complete transformation of a human being into an animal. Recently married, their whole lives ahead, a young couple - Wren and Lewis - realise that Lewis has a Carcharodon carcharias mutation: he's going to turn into a great white shark. The book follows their individual adaptation to this diagnosis, flashing back on occasion to the transformation of Wren's mother into a komodo dragon. While Wren battles to keep Lewis with her, building him a saltwater pool in the garden, enduring Lewis' fading memories and increasingly violent behaviour, Lewis is forced to experience the deterioration of his character and the painful transformation of his body.

I actually had to stop halfway through the book, when Wren has just released Lewis into the ocean, and take a short time out before reading further. Having witnessed others in my life deteriorate and become unrecognisable from what they once were, and the effect of this on loved ones, the book struck just a little too close to home. 

The animal mutation feels like it could be a metaphor for any number of things. The slow onset of dementia that strips a person of who they are and makes them steadily more reliant on loved ones. The slow battering of a person by bad experience into something hard and foreign. Even the simple change of a person throughout their life, making them gradually more incompatible with those around them. 

But the book is chock full of other explorations too, into grief, love, fear of the future. I particularly loved the side story about the Tiny Pregnant Woman who resents the birds growing within her, ready to tear out of her as if her womb were a shell. It would be easy to labour the metaphors and see it as a comment on the declining laws on access to abortion, denied to so many even when there are medical risks, but I think it's really more simple than that. Her body is made something that is not her own, something foreign and dangerous to her, which I expect isn't an unfamiliar feeling to a lot of mothers.

The characters are rounded and very different from each other. Lewis is a dreamer who wants to act and write plays, and inspire his schoolkids to become great. Wren has her feet on the ground, forced into a role of responsibility at too young an age, certain until she's proved wrong that she can find a way to keep their marriage whole. Wren's mother Angela, a teen mother who finds purpose in her child. All of them share a sort of wide-eyed innocence as their lives are torn apart. 

The writing style of the book, short vignettes and sometimes single phrases per chapter, often in the style of a play, gives the book a cascading feeling, like you're being swept along in the lives you're reading with no control over the end result. Perhaps I'm reading into it, but it reflects well the theme of being beholden to change, regardless of whether you're ready for it.

Shark Heart is one of those rare books that reaches right into you and reflects lived experience so exactly, and so poetically, that it feels like you're being seen. It wears its heart openly and unapologetically on its sleeve. Equal parts tenderly comedic and tragic, the book was a difficult one to read, but I'm so glad I did. 

Thank you to Jo Fletcher books for the advance copy.

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