There is rarely a solid message in Patricia McKillip's books -- whatever message there is is usually fluid and hard to read. "Something Rich and Strange" is an exception, with a very mild message about the sea shining through a beautiful twist on the Tam Lin story.
Jonah and Megan are lovers living together in the Pacific Northwest, an artist and a art storekeeper, in a little seaside town where nothing much happens. That is, until the day Adam Fin comes there, with his beautiful pieces of otherworldly jewelry and a mysterious past. Megan finds herself fascinated by Adam, while Jonah finds him strange. Megan is haunted by the sea, by strange and sometimes alarming characters lurking around, and by the image of the sea hare.
But Jonah succumbs to a different kind of siren song, when a beautiful singer at a local bar lures him in with her voice. Soon he has left Megan, the world that he knows, and most of his brain cells to follow the beautiful woman down into the waves. Megan agrees to venture down herself, along with the enigmatic Adam, to find her beloved and try to bring him back. In the process, she and Jonah both must discover the dangerous, angry, grieving beauty of the sea and what they must do for it.
The novella is shorter than most of McKillip's books and longer than her short stories, yet full-fleshed and believable, the simplicity of the story masked by the ornate language she employs so well. Repeated use of seaweed, pearls, bright fish, shells, mer-creatures, and exotic sea-creatures in unusual roles add a note of dreaminess to the proceedings--not that they need it. Except for a few key Jonah-Megan scenes, the entire book has the feel of a beautiful, prolonged dream.
Also unlike most of McKillip's books, this is a contemporary novel, as evidenced by the first page where Megan finds an Orange Crush can and a styrofoam float. Yet this never interferes with the flow of the book, which deals with imagery as timeless as the sea itself. Don't expect the Big Message to beat you over the head with its theme -- McKillip weaves it in softly and subtlely, though it is hinted in where Megan walks along the beach and sees the junk strewn around. The message about pollution becomes clearest at the end, but during subsequent rereadings one can see the clues lined up, but never overemphasized.
The characters are well-drawn: Megan, the rather misty young woman who only really seems to wake up when she heads down into the dreamy world of the sea. Jonah is aptly named, a rather bedazzled young man gets sucked (ironically, by his own will rather than against it) down into the depths. "Welcome to the belly of the whale" indeed. Adam himself is everything he's supposed to be--sexy, ambiguous, in form as well as in mind, for we see him shift from everything from a man to a splash of shapeshifting sea-foam. His sister is not as defined--we know she is dangerous, beautiful, seductive, etc--but perhaps that is deliberate, as we see little of her but constant hints as Jonah pursues her.
One of McKillip's less known novels is also among her best. "Something Rich and Strange" proves to be a magical, beautiful journey into an enchanted sea realm. You'll never see a picture of a mermaid the same way again.