Sirens’ voices have power—not only because of their magical properties, but also because of how they use their voices and for whom. Tavia and Effie know this better than anyone: Tavia herself is a siren, and Effie is Tavia’s best friend in the world. Yet in Bethany C. Morrow’s debut young adult title, A Song Below Water, Tavia’s true identity must remain secret.
Tavia’s father regularly reminds her that sirens are feared and cautions her against what might happen if she were to be found out. Still, Tavia begins to feel that staying silent isn’t the best thing to do, neither for her personally nor for the community of sirens at large. Stifling someone for who they are can’t be healthy, good, or just. It’s based on bias and prejudice, not reality.
The intensity of Morrow’s magical realism is heightened as it functions as an allegory for the racism of our real world. All sirens are Black women, and this magical power is passed through lineage. However, instead of being celebrated like other magical identities, systemic racism means their “power’s not enchanting or endearing anymore; it offends.” Black sirens are a triple minority: “Black and female and a siren is just layers upon layers of trauma.”
It follows that Tavia has struggled throughout her life to live normally and happily. When you’re a siren, “what the world believes about you [is] a matter of life and death.” At times, she wishes her voice away and, at others, she’s so afraid to speak she defaults to sign language instead. Effie, Tavia’s adopted sister, is Tavia’s main interpreter in these moments. Tavia and Effie comfort each other immensely, and this is because they are alike. Morrow is telling a story for everyone—minorities and allies both—but, above all, Morrow is telling a story for Black girls. Tavia and Effie see themselves in one another, just as Black readers can see themselves in these characters. The two magical sisters embody the experience of being a Black girl in a world that consistently devalues them.
The lore of magical identities is air-tight and expansive, with an abundance of scenes that reflect and parallel the experience of being Black in America. We see the double standards that exist between sirens and other magical people like elokos, who possess a magical trilling voice that is adored, not feared. We see the difference between the true lived experience of magical people versus their “mythos,” which is almost never correct and doesn’t reflect who these people really are. We see high school teachers who preach their own harmful, bigoted beliefs about sirens to their students and encourage systems of oppression in class.
We watch alongside Tavia and Effie, living in very white Portland, Oregon, as news of Black deaths affects their magical world just as the same news has affected ours. In the first few pages of the novel, we learn about Rhoda Taylor’s murder and the media’s choice to imply, after the fact, that she may have been a siren, as though this absolves the crime. One form of fear and bigotry works to support another, and we feel for Tavia as she witnesses her identity “used to justify a woman’s murder.”
“One time,” Effie remarks of Tavia, “I said she’s too young to deal with this, and she said we don’t get to be.” Effie and Tavia constantly support one another through the difficulties forced upon them both, and their friendship turned sisterhood is the shining pearl at the heart of this story. They keep each other’s secrets, comfort one another, and above all, use what powers they have to protect each other. While Tavia’s powers as a siren are known to readers from the start, Effie also possesses magic that takes a more mysterious, unknown form, stemming from a childhood accident where her playmates were somehow turned to stone—but it does at least leave her with a powerful gargoyle guardian, fondly dubbed Gargy by the girls.
While the secrets of Effie’s magic unravel, she reaches for solace in Tavia and at the Renaissance Faire, where she gets to play Euphemia the mermaid. Moments of joy and celebration of magic at the Faire are a happy, whimsical undercurrent to the novel and present a world where Tavia and Effie could live without the fear that is actually ever-present in their normal lives. Regular encounters with injustice leave Morrow’s protagonists in moments of intense fear for their own safety, from being unreasonably pulled over by the police to a large protest decrying the killing of a young Black man with unnecessary police violence.
Yet miraculously, it is within these moments of overwhelming fear that the narrative shines. The deft plotting and layers of Morrow’s realistically imagined society lead to the natural conclusion that for Tavia, a siren and a young Black woman, her greatest resistance against injustice is her voice.
In many ways, Tavia’s magic as a siren isn’t anything Morrow’s readers don’t already possess themselves. Tavia simply tells the truth; she asserts her rights. By speaking, she seeks to protect herself and others like her. Her speech, her siren call, is the power to say what should already be known. “You had no right to stop me.”
As Tavia and Effie learn more about their identities and powers, the sisters grow into forces for justice. A Song Below Water is necessary, and it arms young readers with tools to live boldly and fully. They can place their trust in this book, because Morrow in turn trusts her readers. She believes the absolute best of them—she knows they are worthy and that they are strong enough to advocate for themselves and for one another.
“You don’t have to take my voice,” Tavia says to the spirit of her siren grandmother. “Just teach me how to use it.” When readers ask the same of Bethany C. Morrow, they will certainly be rewarded.
A Song Below Water
By Bethany C. Morrow
Published June 2, 2020