Pirate Talk or Mermalade

Author: Teresa Svoboda

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2010

I read it: July 2018

pirate talk or mermalade

This modern take on Treasure Island reads like a play or even a prose poem—there is no exposition, just dialogue, and while I stumbled multiple times when more than two characters entered a scene, I still applaud the author for the format. The telling is lyrical and also mystical, which is appropriate for a story that both honors and skewers the pirate stereotypes (“Avast ye, and the like”).

The story is about two brothers, one an ocean-goer and one a land-lover, and how they eventually both set sail together. The ambitious brother doesn’t understand how the reluctant one can shy away from the romantic life: “He didn’t take the oath, not seeing the pirate life for what it is, a port a’glitter at every call, swords a’plenty and no landholder taxing every tomorrow.” The two of them also vie for the same love interest, who happens to be a real mermaid. This plot point was intriguing though somewhat oddly underused. (To complicate things, there’s the possibility that one of the brothers was a girl the entire time—or was he only masquerading as a girl? I really can’t recall.)

Teresa Svoboda nails the cadence and colorfulness of the pirate slang, dropping gems to describe these sad but humorous characters. “My brother used to say pirates cursed for nothing, just to put fear into anyone’s hearing, but I think we curse most often to hear ourselves alive,” she writes, even though there’s not a lot of real cursing in the book. (There is some clever innuendo, however.) On the futile nature of these seafarers, she offers: “Pirates nearly always put treasure somewhere hard to find, it’s just hard to find the pirate who can ever find a treasure again.”

The best part is how one brother succumbs to tragedy after tragedy, becoming a pirate by losing his limbs. He gains an eye patch here, a peg leg there, and the whole book might be worth this single line that comes near the end: “Pirates are a perfect picture of a person piecemeal, falling apart.” If there is such a thing as pirate literature, this book ought to hold a high spot on the list. Avast!

Music corner: While reading this tale, a couple songs from bands I actually listen to that drifted through my mind were Okkervil River’s squarely relevant “Mermaid” and Neko Case’s powerful new tune “Oracle of the Maritimes.” But the refrain I heard most often was “Lady Marmalade.” What can you do?

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