As I went through my Oscar List in February, one movie stood out from the rest.
Not Zootopia but Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape Of Water“. And when I found out there was a book too, I couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough to read it.
It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito—mute her whole life, orphaned as a child—is struggling with her humdrum existence as a janitor working the graveyard shift at Baltimore’s Occam Aerospace Research Center. Were it not for Zelda, a protective coworker, and Giles, her loving neighbour, she doesn’t know how she’d make it through the day.
Then, one fateful night, she sees something she was never meant to see, the Center’s most sensitive asset ever: an amphibious man, captured in the Amazon, to be studied for Cold War advancements.
The creature is terrifying but also magnificent, capable of language and of understanding emotions…and Elisa can’t keep away. Using sign language, the two learn to communicate. Soon, affection turns into love, and the creature becomes Elisa’s sole reason to live.
But outside forces are pressing in. Richard Strickland, the obsessed soldier who tracked the asset through the Amazon, wants nothing more than to dissect it before the Russians get a chance to steal it. Elisa has no choice but to risk everything to save her beloved. With the help of Zelda and Giles, Elisa hatches a plan to break out the creature. But Strickland is on to them. And the Russians are, indeed, coming..
The Good Bits:
The book is lyrical and emotional. It is a manifesto against the hate and fear for anything different. A beautiful love story. It has a happy ending because it needs to have a happy ending.
She reaches out to him. To herself. There is no difference. She understands now. She holds him, he holds her, they hold each other, and all is dark, all is light, all is ungliness, all is beauty, all is pain, all is grief, all is never, all is forever.
It can be read easily. The chapters are short and the situations (locations, feelings, dialogues) are so well and detailed described that they reminded me movie scenes. Each chapter corresponds to a scene and it mainly has one main character or two main characters on the spotlight.
When he looks at me, the way he looks at me… He does not know, what I lack… Or – how – I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I – am, as I am. He’s happy – to see me. Every time. Every day.
It’s a great love story (be it between Aquaman and a mortal) and the physics of the intercourse had me baffled even in the movie. Here’s a woman who has sex with a fish.. But a fish in love:
“She holds him, he holds her, they hold each other, and all is dark, all is light, all is ugliness, all is beauty, all is pain, all is grief, all is never, all is forever.”
It is beautifully described and makes the heart soar for the two of them together.
Elisa does not speak but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a story to tell. Her sensible voice is the strongest in all of the book and through her thoughts we see the world as she does, feel what she feels and eventually get dragged in into her love story. She is single before and for a good reason.
“Men meet a woman who’s mute, they take advantage of her. Never once on a date did a man ever try to communicate, not really. They just grabbed, and took, as if she, voiceless as an animal, was an animal. This is better. The man from the dream, hazy as he is, is better.”
The book does come with a lot of moral underground it covers – from how janitorial staff is mostly ignored and discarded, how Amazon is losing its most precious creatures, the race between countries to get a better weapon and the societal standards accepted as true for love which might not be the same for all people.
“That’s the thing about being a janitor, or maid, any type of custodian. You glide unseen, like a fish underwater.”
It also covers what intelligent life forms are and the ethics behind trying to perform research and kill a new species.
“But what is intelligence? Is intelligence calculations and computations? Or must true intelligence contain a moral component? Each passing minute, I believe more that this is the case.”
The Bad Bits
The movie is a masterpiece. The book, not quite so.
There is a lot of boring backstory and I was about 2h in into the 14h audiobook before anything happened. I was so bored I was actually thinking of abandoning the whole lot. And towards the end we get magical realism which wasn’t that well made and actually distracted me quite a bit from the main plot.
All of the best scenes from the movie are mutilated to fit whatever POV the book is currently in and it comes out as choppy and incomplete and just a general MESS. For example, remember how Elisa said/signed “if we do NOTHING, neither are we” to Giles’ “It’s not even human,” remark? Remember how HEARTBREAKING that scene was? Well, in this book, that scene is shorter, bleaker, and just not heartfelt at ALL. She says (or, rather, signs) “Neither are we.” That’s it — no lead up, no tone, no nothing.
This book also suffers from being too short for as many POVs as it tries to juggle. So no one gets enough time and those who do get extra moments feel like they’re stealing time from the main plot. For example, Strickland’s wife is a POV character here — yeah, we learn more about her, see her doing more stuff, than ELISA… You know, the supposed LEAD CHARACTER?
The only good thing this book had going for it was the backstory of Elisa’s time in the orphanage, and there was SO LITTLE of that. Not even a proper flashback, like we sort of got for the only other good scene in this book — where Giles and 18-year-old Elisa meet for the first time (MY GOSH THAT WAS CUTE — I loved that bit). Also, and I’m really scraping the bottom of the barrel here, the pictures and cover design are really pretty. And that’s literally all the good I have to say about this.