Chlorine by Jade Song
Published by William Morrow
Adult, Literary Fiction, Queer
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Release Date : March 28th 2023
In the vein of The Pisces and The Vegetarian, Chlorine is a debut novel that blurs the line between a literary coming-of-age narrative and a dark unsettling horror tale, told from an adult perspective on the trials and tribulations of growing up in a society that puts pressure on young women and their bodies… a powerful, relevant novel of immigration, sapphic longing, and fierce, defiant becoming.
Ren Yu is a swimmer. Her daily life starts and ends with the pool. Her teammates are her only friends. Her coach, her guiding light. If she swims well enough, she will be scouted, get a scholarship, go to a good school. Her parents will love her. Her coach will be kind to her. She will have a good life.
But these are human concerns. These are the concerns of those confined to land, those with legs. Ren grew up on stories of creatures of the deep, of the oceans and the rivers. Ones that called sailors to their doom. Ones that dragged them down and drowned them. Ones that feasted on their flesh. Ones of the creature that she’s always longed to become: mermaid.
Ren aches to be in the water. She dreams of the scent of chlorine—the feel of it on her skin. And she will do anything she can to make a life for herself where she can be free. No matter the pain. No matter what anyone else thinks. No matter how much blood she has to spill.
Trigger warning : self harm, mutilation, sexual assault
Back then, I was a girl, a body of water, a liminal state of being, a hybrid on the cusp of evolution. Now, I am Ren Yu. I am 人鱼 . I am person fish. I am mermaid. And so goes my tale of becoming. Are you ready?
ARC provided by the publisher William Morrow through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Being a reviewer it is an honour to have the privilege reading 2023 releases before the end of 2022. This book first caught my eye when one of my friends mentioned how they wanted to read it. I trust this friend’s book taste as it usually aligns with mine. Because of this, I emailed the publisher which they graciously replied by approving my request to read and review Chlorine. Rest assured I immediately devoured it within three days.
Prior to reading it I did not know anything about Chlorine. The synopsis on Goodreads only offered minimum information about the book. Chlorine is pitched as The Pisces and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, two books that I have never read before, so I can’t really explain the similarities or any other details that I could compare to these books. For this reason, I will review Chlorine with a fresh and clean perspective.
Chlorine is a fantastic debut book of up and coming writer Jade Song. The story is a modern and twisted coming of age mermaid inspired story about a competitive swimmer, Ren Yu, as she attempts to reach the expectations of her immigrant mother all the while going through puberty and achieve swimming greatness under the brutal coaching of a demanding trainer. It is a story that highlights the pressures of being a teenager struggling coming to terms with womanhood and shouldering the expectations of a high achieving student wanting to please everyone in their life.
Ren, being an immigrant’s daughter with a father that lives in a different continent, is shaped to become the person everyone influential in her life expected her to be. Though Ren herself doesn’t know who she wants to become; her identity is put on the shelf multiple times as she is put under enormous pressure. Song writes Ren’s story with masterful skill pushing Ren slowly to the edge with incredibly engaging prose. The slow ascent to unhinged madness as Ren is whipped to reality by the disappointments of her coach, peers, and family; pushes her to embrace the identity formed by her delusions.
You must know by now my mermaid tale is no such joyful narrative. And you would not be interested in this story if it were.
Ren’s obsession to achieve perfection, shown through how strict she follows her regimen given by her swim coach, is a gradual process in her characterization. It is reminiscent of movies such as Whiplash and Black Swan. There are many parallels that I’ve found in Chlorine with these movies such as the demanding and ruthless tutor, the immense pressure from all parts of the main character’s life, and the obsession that came to a boiling point of explosive outcomes. The way Song describes the atmosphere in Chlorine is the foundation that perfectly sets the tone of the story. It is undeniably addictive how Song crafted Ren’s journey weaving in the factors that are relevant and close to real life.
For me as a reader I completely relate to Ren and her family. She comes from an immigrant background with a family originating from China living in America. It is a story that hits close to home for me as it is something I have gone through similarly in my life. I’d say Chlorine is such a great depiction of it, minus the eventual climax of the story. The references of Mandarin pop songs and nostalgic Chinese films is on point that it put a smile on my face as I grew up consuming those medias too. Some readers might think that these pop culture references are cringe or irrelevant to a story but for Chlorine it became a staple in Ren’s characterization to add depth (as I find a commonality between me and Ren through these references).
But I was meant to be selfish—my self, meeting the fish. In a way, my breaking compounded my ascendancy, though it was never I who did the actual breaking. It was my head, the people, and the systems around me.
Chlorine is a love letter to mermaids and its various interpretations, legends, and myth of the story. From the happiest versions of the story to its darkest versions. Ren fell in love with the idea of mermaids when she was just a child. That love only became stronger as Ren found many signs that pointed to her identity as she grows up. At first Ren denies these fantasies but then she embraces it when she is under pressure. The comfort these stories about mermaids has given Ren, became her escape from reality to a point of no return. And through these stories Ren develops a coping mechanism to comfort herself that she will achieve perfection. After she fell from the pressures of her life it led Ren to completely pursuing perfection with maniacal madness until the idea struck true.
The evolution of Ren’s characterization is satisfying to read from start to end. Song’s ability to write Ren’s logic is incredibly immersive as it is equally disturbing and awe striking how it all made sense even though deep inside it is unhinged. I would like to dissect Song’s writing process because through reading the book I am just so immersed and engaged word for word. I liked what Song was selling and I completely bought it. Seeing the final form of Ren’s characterization being shaped as each monumental moment moulded her thinking and the identity that she wants blew me away. It is a display of Song’s ability as a writer to craft a story that is high quality. It’s been a while since a book drowned me in the fantasy that I could not look away.
As I write, I feel the same fire from that streamline perimeter walk, relighting itself inside me, licking, inside my core, a slow smolder, a wholly different sensation from the numbing conflagration brought by streamline and the irritation of chlorine on skin—the feeling you give me is more like embers. Glowing.
The other characters that became a fundamental part of Ren’s transformation and growth are written with equal care. Song’s intent to push Ren through the side characters was so deliberate and precise. There are goosebumps all over as I see the shift in Ren’s conscience and demeanour taking effect. One of the side characters that is a tool in helping Ren is her best friend, Cathy. Their relationship is one of the highlights of the story for me. I love how Song weaved in a sapphic plot line through Cathy. She has been loyal to Ren ever since they were young and she continued to be so up until the end. In a way Cathy enabled Ren’s fantasy to become a reality as a result of her infatuation and loyalty. Cathy’s longing for Ren’s affection is intense and palpable that the tension is so high, as a reader I could feel it through my bones.
Final thoughts, Chlorine is a solid stand out debut that is immersive and atmospheric that is worthy of a movie adaptation. I presume Song’s background in art direction plays a big part in their ability to write a vivid story. For readers that are curious about what the mood is like for Chlorine I suggest checking out the mood board Song has made on Instagram, check out @chlorinenovel. Chlorine has become one of my most anticipated debuts in 2023, I can’t wait for people to read Jade Song’s writing. Please support by pre-ordering or requesting Chlorine at your nearest library because this book has exceeded my expectations. If you like stories about obsessed competitive athletes, with stories about mermaids scattered throughout, lots of sapphic yearning, and lots of unhinged moments, definitely pick this book up.
About the Author
Jade Song (she/they) is a writer, art director, and artist. Her debut novel CHLORINE is forthcoming in 2023 from William Morrow. Her writing has been nominated for numerous “best of” year anthologies and has appeared in Teen Vogue, Electric Literature, Waxwing, and elsewhere. Their art direction work has been awarded by and featured in The Shortys, SXSW, Campaign US, The Smarties, Advertising Week, Bustle, and AdAge, among others.
She resides in Brooklyn and considers Pittsburgh and Beijing home too. They enjoy cooking tofu, supporting their friends, looking at paintings, and slowly translating Chinese literature.
Website | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads | Chlorine Moodboard
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Your reviews are an absolute joy to read. You have such a way with words and you constantly make me want to pick up books that I may have never considered before. Horror as a genre is definitely not my cup of tea, but the way it’s woven into this tale sounds really fascinating and certainly piques my interest. I’m so glad you shared your thoughts on this one!
prutha @ moonchild lexicons
ahh i cannot wait to read this book, it sounds absolutely amazing! lovely review 💞