Kelly Powell’s debut young-adult novel, Songs from the Deep, has a definite colour palette; strongly atmospheric in its chilly, unspecified Celtic island setting, it conjures up the experience of watching a film shot through filters of grey and blue.
The focus of the story is Moira, a talented fiddler who lives with her mother and is still mourning her father, killed by the sirens that make her island a thrillingly dangerous tourist attraction. Powell tweaks these mythical Greek creatures that sing to lure men to their deaths, adapting them to the cold northern setting – with black hair and pale faces the author compares to salt and chalk – and expanding their victims to include women and children.
Moira and her late father bonded through music and the unusual belief that sirens should not be held accountable for their infrequent but deadly attacks as they’re simply following their nature. So when a young boy turns up dead and the sirens are blamed, only Moira seems bothered by the un-siren-like aspects of his death.
The surprising thing about Songs from the Deep is how little the sirens themselves feature, which may disappoint readers hoping for more focus on the magical aspects of the story. Powell situates her narrative as a mystery and a character piece rather than a fantasy, and the sirens stand in for Moira’s connection to her father, her wild love for the island, and the threat of random violence (and the sometimes mob-like reaction to it). Indeed, the sirens could have just as easily been a wolf pack or any other type of feared and misunderstood beast.
The emotional backbone of the story comes from Moira’s relationship with her childhood friend, Jude, the island’s current lighthouse keeper, who joins Moira’s crusade to clear (in this case at least) the sirens of blame for wrongdoing. Jude, an orphan with a house full of Bluebeard-inspired locked doors, is himself pleasantly mysterious as well as an appealing love interest for Moira.
More than anything else, Songs from the Deep is driven by atmosphere; the mix of a murky island backdrop, suspenseful tone, and the strangely out-of-time historical setting is Guillermo del Toro–esque. At its core, the novel is about the fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable, and the cruelty that fear can conjure in people. Though the unrelenting chill of the island at times feels heavy, the wisdom of Powell’s storytelling provides an insightful narrative alongside a powerful murder mystery.