Shark Heart by Emily Habeck
Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: August 8, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Literary, Science Fiction
Today’s review needs a bit of a preface: My husband doesn’t read (I know, I know, I love him anyway). He teases me about my obsession with books by noting there are only so many stories and I’ve read them all so how can I keep reading? Theoretically, this is true. Most novels revolve around the same basic themes: love, family, secrets, experiences. But within those parameters, there’s an infinite number of stories, as evidenced by today’s book. In one sentence, it’s about the obstacles faced in a young marriage, compromised plans, generational trauma, and loss. Nothing unheard of in fiction, but what if these points were set in the midst of a world that is ours and yet…not? The result would be the extraordinary, singular, Shark Heart.
Lewis and Wren meet while in college and are instinctively drawn to each other—complementary polar opposites. Lewis is a dreamer, an artist, and actor while Wren is clinical, cerebral, controlled. He teaches drama to high school students and she works in finance, but they fall deeply in love and marry. Months after their marriage Lewis starts noting changes in his body and is finally informed by a doctor that he is undergoing a rare mutation and will soon become a great white shark.
Cue the eye-rolling, laughter, or even disgust (if disgust, stop right now, this is not the book for you). I passed on the chance to read the novel when I first heard about it. When I finally gave in it was to find that from this absurdist beginning Shark Heart becomes a story grounded in the complexities of the human experience. Debut author Emily Habeck crafts a snow globe of a world, confusing and obscured when shaken, but slowly settling to reveal very real scenes of life. There are people, some of whom are beset by an unusual condition, but all of whom grapple with how to deal with the unexpected, the unwelcome, and the unknown. There are situations—how to care for a loved one who is becoming unrecognizable, what choices have to be made, when to let go, how to grieve.
The situation is unfathomable, but in Habeck’s hands it is recognizable, seasoned with pathos and dry humor, such as Wren’s response when Lewis finally tells her he’s turning into a shark,
Wren’s forehead crinkled. Her gaze drifted to the concrete floor.
“They say the first year of marriage is the hardest,” she said at last…
That simple, sly reply lays bare Wren’s character. There will be no cut and run, no denial; she will take care of and stay with Lewis for as long as she can. This doesn’t mean Shark Heart is a Disneyesque love story or a remake of the movie Splash. Instead, Habeck stays true to the scientific underpinnings of her premise and in doing so brings to life a world that is as familiar as it is strange.
If your fiction needs to stay firmly rooted in reality than this is not a world you’ll want to visit. For those who welcome flights of fancy, the novel captures the minutiae of everyday life and its attendant emotions of joy, frustration, annoyance, and passion, coupled with the unfathomable process of a human mutating into a shark. Shark Heart is permeated with insights on both humanity and nature and is a touching reminder that much like the shark itself, moving forward is the only way to sustain life.
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