“You are not here of your own free will. You are here because I desired you first.” So begins Chlorine, a darkly imaginative debut by artist and writer Jade Song. This coming-of-age novel follows Ren, a competitive high school swimmer whose life revolves around the pool. Outwardly, she is a high-achieving student, a dedicated athlete under the tutelage of her problematic coach, and a close friend to her loyal teammate Cathy. Inwardly, she longs for the freedom she found as a child in the pages of a book of mermaid folklore, from Nüwa and her serpentine body to the Passamaquoddy tale of the two girls transformed into writhing water snakes.
Ren’s fierce longing for the freedom of the water is grounded in loss: Her father returned to China for work, leaving a young Ren and her mother behind in Pennsylvania. Ren finds solace in the chlorine-tinged waters of competitive swimming, but her time in the water is immediately complicated by Jim, a predatory swim coach who routinely pushes his swimmers to their breaking points—with a particularly intimate interest in Ren. As Ren continues to push herself to succeed—to swim well enough to get scouted and end up at an Ivy League school—she circles burnout, continuing to put others’ expectations before her own until she reaches her breaking point. Ren is sexually assaulted by a teammate during a team party, and after this final blow to her autonomy, she realizes that the only way to overcome the expectations of her human life is to evolve into her true form.
This is a story about transcendence and self-actualization, at the expense of conventional demands on young women. At each major turn in Ren’s life, she’s confronted with the reminder that her sense of self isn’t good enough when measured against external pressures. She struggles to meld her Chinese heritage with the expectations of American adolescence; when Ren tries to play a song by Chinese artist Faye Wong for her finals heat walkout during a swim meet, Cathy persuades her to go with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” instead. At a pivotal swim meet, she’s disqualified for a basic mistake that disappoints her coach, her teammates, and her sense of self. The narrative escalates each of these disappointments until Ren’s pivotal moment in a locker room shower, which is as disturbing as it is revelatory; Song’s prose depicts Ren in a dissociative, almost mechanical state, as opposed to the elevated diction throughout the novel. In this deeply upsetting, climactic scene, Ren has finally taken her life into her own hands—everything else from her former human life is frivolous compared to the freedom of the open sea.
Chlorine’s narrative calls to question what is real and what is imagined; without the opening chapter, which is told from Ren’s point of view after she has already completed her transformation, the events would read like a teenage girl’s slow descent into a mental spiral after years of pressure as a competitive athlete. But the opening chapter describes Ren in the state she dreamed of achieving: “my ethereal beauty, my siren song, my six pack, my tail with scales embroidered in flesh.” Throughout the novel, we read Cathy’s letters, which she had placed into bottles and left at the creek where Ren disappeared; the letters are declarations of love, but also signposts that Ren is still alive, somewhere. The magical realism at play in this world is just as unsettling as Ren’s transformation itself; the reader’s curiosity is never fully sated, mostly because the older, evolved Ren no longer has any interest in catering to the whims of mere humans.
Song’s prose shines when she describes the smaller moments that develop the world Ren leaves behind: the quiet moments with her mother watching the 1994 film Chunking Express with her mother; the moments of burgeoning adolescent love that flash between Ren and Cathy; the intimacy of the swim team’s rituals, such as the pasta parties and shaving sessions before big meets. In fact, the richness of these scenes calls to question one of the central details of this story: Ren wishes to be a mermaid, but her definition of what that means evolves unevenly throughout the novel. In the opening chapter, she says, “Mermaids swim in chlorine, thrive in locker rooms, and dive under and over lane ropes.” But the story’s end, she realizes, “Chlorine mermaids were not in folklore because chlorine mermaids did not exist.” We are told that the traumas Ren faced “would help me succeed into a mermaid,” but the reader must make an emotional leap to connect her trauma to this evolution. And although Ren has a moment of existential reprieve during a brief summer fling with a fellow lifeguard named Ess, this chapter is a hiccup in the narrative’s pacing because it detracts from Ren’s burnout. The end result is that it’s clear, narratively, that Ren places value on becoming a mermaid—but it’s less clear how her burnout contributed to this leap.
Not all of the threads are followed, but overall, Chlorine is a strong, memorable novel that explores the intersection of identity and independence. When Song writes about the event in which Ren was disqualified, she artfully describes the beauty and force of swimming in a way that captures why Ren keeps returning to the water: “I was abuzz. I was awake. … I was tougher than those dumb boys, I could bleed out my vagina and still win first place.” For Ren, the questions left in the reader’s mind are flippant, for she is destined to be free.
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: March 28, 2023
Reviewed by Rebecca Paredes