SHARK HEART: A LOVE STORY by Emily Habeck (BOOK REVIEW)
“Are we all just actors, performing some unbound art form for God, the audience of space?
I wish I could have seen then what I know now.
All along, I had the starring role.”
Shark Heart by Emily Habeck is a stunning debut which grabs you with its unique style, holds you within its vulnerability and leaves you with a bittersweet aching. This is not just a story of love, it’s a story of goodbyes.
Wren and Lewis are newly married, their first year together should be a time of marital bliss, of possibilities, adjustments and new beginnings. In a way Wren and Lewis will experience all of this but not in the way they had both expected or hoped for. When Lewis starts to notice some strange changes to his body he at first brushes it off as nothing but it soon becomes hard to ignore. After visiting a doctor Lewis is diagnosed with a rare condition, carcharodon cacharias, he’s mutating into a Great White Shark. Wren and Lewis now only have a year left together until Lewis will inevitably become one of the most dangerous predators and no longer human. Yet Wren holds out hope that there might be a way for them to still be together, she refuses to accept his fate as the end for them both, but eventually Wren must face reality—she’s been through this before, this isn’t the first time she’s lost someone she loves. Intertwined within the story of Wren and Lewis is also the story of Wren’s mother, Angela, who goes through many changes in her life.
The novel is split into three parts, each one focusing on giving the reader an in-depth view into Lewis, Wren and Angela’s lives. Habeck slowly builds a picture of Wren and Lewis’ relationship, the dynamics between these two people who are opposites in many ways. Wren had a somewhat troubling backstory, stemming from a rocky relationship with her mother which saw her leaving home at an early age. Wren had been a lonely child, an intelligent student at college and eventually an overachiever in her work-life in Finance, but not one to make friends easily. Wren in essence is a perfectionist, practical, always in control, she places an iron guard around her emotions. Lewis on the other hand is a dreamer, a romantic, a man full of ideas but not the will to see them through. He’s a failed actor still in pursuit of his big role, a drama teacher by day, a playwright by night. He has two loving parents but both never really believed in his career. I was so moved by the way Wren and Lewis fit together, they compliment each other. Wren supports Lewis’ ambitions, encourages him and is sensitive to his failings, and Lewis helps Wren to open up, to feel, to love. Until the balance shifts and Wren faces losing her Lewis, her rock. Their life plays out like a montage of film scenes, fragmented and yet piecing together how they both navigated through life.
Habeck then takes us on a journey right back to 1980 in Oklahoma, where we delve into Angela’s character. As a child Angela experienced her own turbulent relationship with her parents—a father overworked, a mother an alcoholic, and Angela drifts in the midst of being ignored by two arguing adults who should have been there to guide her. It is no wonder as a teenager she fell for a man on a houseboat, a man with an unpredictable temper, and along came Wren. Angela’s story revolves around a friendship found and lost, of falling in love and learning to be a mother. This time shift was certainly a daring move by Habeck, particularly as it is placed right in the middle of the novel, yet it worked fantastically. Angela became a character who had my utmost admiration, a strong female who weathers all the physical, emotional and metaphorical transitions life throws at us.
“It was not really a dancing song but, rather, the kind of music that made you want to nestle into the arms of someone wonderful and stay there forever.
Through the music’s swells, they swayed, and they knew, and they held each other, and they knew, and they melted, and they knew, and they knew, and they knew: Everything would be different and difficult soon.”
In fact Shark Heart is a novel full of bold choices by Habeck and one of my absolute favourites lies within its narrative style, which is the most unique I’ve ever come across. Habeck writes some chapters in drama script, with transcripts of various characters talking to one another and the inclusion of stage directions, other chapters are written in third-person narration and some in blank verse. Each chapter is short with some consisting of only a few sentences or a few lines of poetry, however every word holds meaning, every line impactful in a variety of ways. I love when a novel allows us to read between the lines, to interpret metaphors and symbolism in our own way, and I loved doing that here. The lives of these characters are not told in a linear way either, as I have mentioned before we get fragmented pieces of past and present and Habeck challenges us to piece everything together. I honestly didn’t think this disjointed narrative style could work, I thought it would feel too jarring, but *chef’s kiss* to Habeck because this story unfolds in the most beautiful way.
As beautiful and sorrowful as this novel is, dealing with heavy notions such as caring for an ill loved one, it is also rather bizarre. This is a world where animal mutations of vast varieties exist, little reason or background is given for these mutations, they occur uncontrollably and cannot be stopped once the onset of the transformation begins. Whilst again I absolutely loved the boldness of Habeck presenting a story where people can turn into sharks, zebras, Komodo dragons and that’s that, accept it and move on, the worldbuilding nerd in me wanted to delve deeper. I’ll admit though I also absolutely loved Habeck’s mix of dark and wry humour, particularly as the transformations blurred the lines between human and animal. Lewis’s state of becoming a Great White Shark is detailed throughout, from his physical changes of his bones fracturing and turning to cartilage, to his growing fins, gills and razor sharp teeth and also to his mental state, his need to release aggression, his basic instinct to kill his prey—which unfortunately happens in the most inappropriate places and often made me laugh. Though the physical mutation itself is not the heart of this story, it’s the journey of transformation. Habeck shows us how it’s possible to let yourself love and be loved even if that means letting go in the end. It’s an allegory for the transitions we all go through, from childhood to adulthood, from daughter to mother, from love to loss and eventually… maybe… freedom.
Shark Heart explores the parts of us that are human, the parts that are animal and the parts of us that can transform and be at peace with a new version of ourselves. Habeck delivers an innovative and inspirational story that emotionally captures its readers until the end.
“In the rare hopeful hour, I tell myself this darkness has a purpose: to help me recognize light if I ever find it again.
In the plethora of dismal times,
I will never forgive myself for leaving you,
ARC provided by Ella at Jo Fletcher Books in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy! All quotes used are taken from an early ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
Shark Heart will be released 8th August 2023 but you can pre-order HERE