Content warning: This book and review discuss mental illness, depression, and self-harm.
The Little Mermaid is one of the most popular Disney films of all time. Its source material, however, isn’t as cheerful. Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale ends with the titular character sacrificing herself in the name of love, and depending on the version, she either dissolves into sea-foam or becomes an angel after her death. No matter the ending, the story always includes this key fact: merpeople aren’t born with souls. Because they are different from humans, they cease to exist if they don’t achieve immortality. The ending in which the Little Mermaid moves on to the afterlife implies she was rewarded for her selflessness, with humanity being the ultimate goal.
Sara Ella’s young adult novel Coral takes this concept and flips it on its head. The merpeople in this story are afraid of what is known as the Disease—human emotions that they’re not supposed to have. Coral, the protagonist, notices that her oldest sister has been infected and fears she might be, as well. At the same time, a human girl named Brooke is struggling with demons from her past as she moves into a mental health care facility for young girls. Immediately suspicious of the casual setting, she wonders how long she can keep herself afloat before her anxiety and depression drag her under.
Before the story even begins, Ella leaves a note for readers that this story is extremely heavy, with its themes of mental illness and self-harm. Brooke feels responsible for events that happened in the past and is weighed down by the guilt and pain that she feels. Hope, one of the other girls staying at the care facility, has self-harm scars on her arms from believing that she is “nothing.” Merrick, a boy Coral meets later in the story, has a younger sister who attempts to kill herself twice during the course of the story due to bullying. Ella is open and honest about how severe depression can be, especially in young girls, and while it’s heartbreaking to read, it allows readers to see just how difficult living with mental illness is.
While Ella herself doesn’t hold back from discussing the effects of depression, there are several characters who do. Coral’s father and middle sister refuse to talk about her oldest sister’s suffering, to the point that they view it as a weakness. The Disease the merpeople fear is not just about emotions; it’s the stigma that comes with openly discussing depression. Coral feels ashamed to talk about her own signs of the Disease, much like many young people feel ashamed to open up about having depression in real life. As someone who has obsessive compulsive disorder, I know how scary it is to try and talk about it—especially when the fear of being misunderstood is so prevalent.
Merrick is a perfect example of someone who has good intentions but ultimately doesn’t quite understand what’s going on around him. He whisks his sister away from their father after her first attempt to kill herself, thinking that he’s the root of her problems. Merrick notices his sister losing weight and sleeping for most of the day, but he’s unprepared and doesn’t know how to properly treat her worsening depression. It’s unrealistic to expect someone to know exactly what to say and do all the time, but it’s important that loved ones learn the best way to approach situations that may turn serious. Merrick learns it’s okay to ask for help, especially when it comes to the well-being of those he cares about.
While Coral was definitely not the easiest book to get through due to the subject matter, I’m so glad that it exists for teens. The author makes it clear that she understands the nuances of anxiety and depression, and that those of us who are suffering are not in the wrong for feeling the way we do. Depression isn’t a matter of choosing not to be happy; it’s a very real, very serious sickness, one that many keep hidden for fear of judgment. I have faith that stories like Coral will give teens hope that they’re not the only ones suffering and that there is help for them available. Opening up about any kind of mental illness can be difficult, but it’s well worth it.
Coral hits shelves on November 12, 2019.
If you or anyone you know is in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) operates 24 hours a day. You can also text (741741) or use the chat option if you don’t feel comfortable speaking over the phone.