The opening chapters provide the back story, first fifteen and then nine years previously. We meet Callie's mother, Maera Morgan fifteen years earlier - a young woman who had carefully and in a calculating manner selected a lonely, passionless geoscience professor to marry and to give her a child. Maera made sure the man she chose was someone she would never love and Alan Twaddle was certainly someone who fit that criteria -an academic buried in his research. Then nine years ago, with her daughter Callie in a boat, Maera simply slipped into the water and disappeared, presumed drowned. Callie was questioned but no one believed her story nor understood why Callie didn't help her mother.
In an effort to forget Maera's death, Callie and her father moved inland, the first few moves within the state of California. Callie's mom had a younger sister, Nessa, whom Callie is close to. Nessa tells Callie that her mother's family all live near the sea in many different countries throughout the world. They are drawn to the sea with many being sailors, swimmers, divers, fisherman and aquatic biologists. Nessa tells Callie that the ocean has a voice that seems to beckon them, an idea that her father finds ridiculous and chalks up to Nessa's use of marijuana.
After the second move, Alan decided to leave California, taking Callie away from the ocean and the home she loved so much to the Midwest. Nessa didn't travel with them, warning Alan "God knows how your daughter will suffer before you see how wrong it is." For nine years Callie and her father moved from place to place in the Midwest, from Grand Junction, Colorado to Elko, Nevada to Laramie, Wyoming where they've lived for the past six months. A year after her mother's death, Callie developed problems with her lungs, having attacks that left her unable to breathe and often requiring hospitalization and numerous medications. These mysterious attacks puzzled doctors who were never quite able to pin down a diagnosis. Callie eventually stopped making friends; too many moves and too many hospitalizations.
While in Laramie, an old colleague of Alan's, Mike Foster, began calling him from the Gulf Coast. Her father has a reputation as an excellent geotechnical engineer and he's being courted for a huge wind-farm project to be developed in the Gulf. With the offer to pay for their move and Callie's treatments at a university hospital, Alan agreed to move to Florida.
The story reverts to the present as Callie and her father settle into a house on a river that leads to the Gulf and she is enrolled in a private school called Ballard. Callie is provided with a new physician named Sharp who starts her on new medication. Within a month of arriving Callie finds her breathing begins to ease, her attacks less frequent. She meets the young girl next door, Bee, who insists she's seen a dark-haired mermaid in the river near the dock.
When Callie goes to see Dr. Sharp she tells him that she has been having vivid dreams, which the doctor suggests might be the result of the beta-blockers she is taking. What she doesn't tell Dr. Sharp is that when she closes her eyes, she sees someone in the darkness of her mind. Callie believes this is her mother and she takes great comfort in these dreams.
Then one day Nessa surprises everyone arriving for an extended visit, not having seen Callie for nine years. At school Mr. Strong, Callie's biology teacher, assigns a cute boy, Ben Barrington to help Callie settle in. For the first time in years, Callie makes friends; Ben's friends who include sisters Mikah and Shanika and Jana who specializes in just being herself. There's also cute Eric Keller, Meredith Hartman's boyfriend.
At night Callie retreats to her dreams where she believes she meets her mother in the depths of the ocean. Then her dreams change with Callie hearing her mother beckoning her to come away with her, to come home. One night Callie sleepwalks to the dock entering the river, only to be saved from drowning by Nessa. Nessa and Callie keeps this episode a secret from Callie's father and they decide to lock her bedroom door at night as Callie can't be sure this hasn't happened before.
Because of her dreams and her belief that her mother lives on in the sea as a mermaid, Callie feels drawn to water, to the ocean and wants to learn to swim. When she does, Callie discovers she is a natural. In fact, she's so good that Eric Keller who is a member of the school swim team, suggests that she try out for the team. All Callie wants to do however, is answer the persistent call of the sea, to swim in the Gulf where she believes she's being called.
Callie's swimming begins to trim her body of the doughy physique she had acquired over the years and she becomes lean and taut, growing taller and broad shouldered. For the first time in her life, Callie feels strong and capable, in charge of her life and her destiny. In the water she feels confident.
"Everything that made me flat-footed and ungainly in my old life is different in the water...I will never be a teenage dream of sinuous, delicate femininity. Not on land. But swimming, even my large hands and feet seem streamlined. Flat and powerful, knifing and kicking as I relearn to move below sea level."
Ben begins coming to visit Callie at her home, meeting her father and taking her out. Nessa warns Callie though to be careful telling her "This boy will want to keep you." But Callie begins to fall for Ben enjoying her time with him and they way they make plans to do things together. Just when Callie's life seems to be falling into place, her health recovered, a cute boyfriend and an almost family with Nessa and her father, things begin to unravel. The pull of the ocean overwhelms Callie, almost leading to a terrible tragedy and resulting in difficult decision by her distraught father to save his daughter from the fate she seems destined for.
Inland is psychological mystery in which Callie's condition can be an either or. Rosenfield presents her readers with two choices; is Callie part of a line of mermaids who still feel the call of the ocean or is her heritage really that of mental illness. Rosenfield weaves the mermaid theme in early, incorporating some of the mermaid mythology into the opening chapter. In mermaid mythology, mermaids were creatures who were half woman half fish, who sang to men on ships, luring them into the sea with their beautiful songs, only to drown them. Callie's mother seems to suggest that she has been granted time on land to carefully select a man to give her a child, but is always intent upon returning to the sea. As Callie grows older she learns that she comes from a family in which all the women seem irrevocably drawn to the sea and appear to need to live near it in order to remain healthy. Inexplicably, Nessa won't follow Callie and their father as he moves inland but when she learns of Callie's move to the Gulf Coast she leaves immediately. Callie's Aunt Lee however, moves as far away from ocean as possible, after the death of her husband and boy and is very sick when Callie contacts her, suggesting that her illness is the result of her distance from the ocean.
The mermaid theme continues when Callie moves to Florida and she lives next to a river. Ben takes her to an area where there are manatees, which Callie immediately feels an attraction to. These elusive creatures were once thought to be mermaids. The evil mermaid theme appears throughout most of Callie's nightmares. Her mother does not appear as the beautiful, kind mermaid of modern culture but more as a willful, dark one. Rosenfield's descriptions portray this well: "I can feel, rather than see, her pale, long hand as it brushes my hip or shoulder; the glint in her large black eyes..." and later on after the near drowning of her and Ben: "Her skin is silver-white and cold, hairless and slick. I feel long limbs sliding past me, a hand like silk on my back....There is something stretched between her fingers, a gossamer membrane too slippery to grasp. The oval nails are longer now, skinless, gray, thick, and hooked and glistening in their points....The high rise of her forehead breaks the surface, water beading on the ridges where her eyebrows used to be. Eyes like black marbles peer back at me, lightless and shining with no whites at all."
Even the mystery over Callie's maternal family suggests either mermaid or madness. Nessa tells Callie that her grandmother, glamorous, smart and gifted, "rejected what she was meant for" and disappeared. Aunt Lee also hints at Callie's mysterious family past remarking that no one has told Callie anything.
The theme of mental illness is also woven through the novel as Callie gradually loses her grip on reality and begins to recognize that her obsession with the sea seems to mirror that of her mother's before her death. Callie asks herself if the voice of sea once called out to her mother too and could she have believed that that is where she belonged?
Readers may think they know where Rosenfield is going with her storyline, but she does throw in enough twists to keep readers wondering. Is Callie really seeing something in the river or are her vision the product of a sick mind? Are her dreams the result of the psychological trauma she experienced as a young girl and is unable to process properly or the product of a true longing to return to the sea?
Rosenfield's prose is beautiful and captures the setting of her story well. However, sometimes the extensive descriptions overwhelm the novel which perhaps could have benefited from better editing especially at the beginning when readers have to catch up on the missing nine years following Maera's death.
The ending of Inland is unexpected and cryptic, leaving readers to make their own conclusions. Inland is an interesting variation on the mermaid theme that seems to be seeing a resurgence of interest in young adult literature. Fans of Anna Banks, Of Posiedon series may not find this one quite to their liking, given the cryptic, unresolved nature of Inland. But it is well written and the mental illness twist adds to the mystery.
Inland by Kat Rosenfield
New York: Dutton Books 2014