This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I was ecstatic when I learned that this would be published. I watched the movie in December last year and loved it and didn’t expect to encounter the story in novel form. When I heard of the book, I wondered if it would be as great as the movie and immediately reserved it at my library. However, procuring a copy of the book proved difficult due to silly mishaps on my part.
I was granted access to my library’s e-copy, which I accidentally returned. ☹ I was so pissed at myself. Luckily, the physical copy was available at my library, so I borrowed that. But as soon as I started reading, I knew that this would be a book I’d love because I immediately fell for the prose, which is 50% of the reason why I love this book as much as I do. Because of that, I decided to get my own copy. I needed to be able to highlight all the words and phrases and passages that jumped out at me and I could only do so in my own book.
Historical fiction; Fantasy, magical realism; Romance
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 neighbor, 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. (Goodreads)
It’s sometimes difficult to write about the books I love. I either feel overwhelmed by all I want to say or overthink it and believe nothing I say will adequately express how the story made me feel and what it made me think. Such is the case with this book. I feel overwhelmed and incapable of expressing how much I loved it and keep restarting this reflection piece. It’s the second time this has happened this year. The first time was with Kintu, a historical magical realism novel set in Uganda, and for that I instead focused on my experience reading the book instead of what the story is about and what I gained from it, both of which I want to focus on in this piece but is proving difficult to get out.
As I said in my intro, the novel was released after the movie. The story in both is the same, but the novel’s story does give more depth and backstory to the characters. It’s the other 50% of the reason why I love the book more: I fell in love with the writing and the richer story. When I think back on the story, I consider the movie and the book as separate entities that present the story in their own way. So if you’re not one to rewatch or reread a story, then sampling the story in just one of the two mediums would be best for you. However, if you are interested in seeing how a story varies when presented well in these two mediums, then I suggest watching the movie and reading the book. Both are great and do the story well.
It’s the movie poster that made me want to see the film. There’s an ethereal eeriness about it that made me curious about the story. I don’t think I saw any previews and I certainly didn’t look up what the movie was about. But I was convinced, based on the poster, that it would be a movie I’d like, and I was right. I enjoyed it and was surprised I did. The opening scene of an apartment completely filled with water as if it’s beneath the sea immediately pulled me in. I loved the tranquil, mysterious eeriness of that scene, which made me wonder if this story would be more fantastical than I’d ever expect. The tone and atmosphere of the movie is one of the things I loved about it. They enveloped me in the story making me forget the theater I was sitting in and when the movie was done, I’m pretty sure I heard the audience exhale as if coming down from the high, the wonder, of the story they were transported into. It was the first movie I’d been to where no one left during the movie to go the bathroom or get food.
The acting is the main reason why I loved the movie. It was well-done and passionate and made me feel what the actors expressed. Sally Hawkins, who plays the protagonist Eliza Esposito, a mute woman, did a great job, and I loved those moments that were filled with strong emotions and contained much emphasis in what she was signing to other characters. (Like when she forced Giles to listen to her by making him say aloud what she signed and that moment between Eliza and the creature at the dinner table when she tried to say and express how she feels but found it difficult to do (that part preceded the singing part, which I didn’t like much).) All the actors were wonderful in their roles, but only a few characters felt well-rounded. I didn’t care much for the villain, Strickland, because he was one-sided. We only ever saw him as a predator and villain, which is why I love the book more.
The novel gives more depth to the characters and provides us with their backstories. Since it’s a book, the creator, Guillermo del Toro, has freedom to include more — more story, more characters (just one extra side character, I think, but we spend more time with the characters), harsher conditions and cruelty. For me, these extra additions to the story fleshed it out and made it richer. Where with the movie I felt content at the end for having experienced a great story with great acting, with the book I felt satisfied, stuffed, as if I’d finished a three-course meal and can think of nothing else to do but wrap myself in my satiety and sleep.
It was the writing that pulled me in. As I said in my intro, I could tell this would be a book I’d love after a few sentences. I love how descriptive the prose is. I love that it has rhythm to it and loved the alliterated phrases that teased me into reading passages aloud. I love the imagery and adjectives used, some of which I’d never think to pair together, and I love the pace of the sentences and their varied lengths (some were 7 lines long!). I can’t say it enough — I love the writing in this book and would now like to try some of Daniel Kraus’s work to see if he might become my new favorite author.
“Deus Brânquia, at last, rises from the shoal, the blood sun carving the Serengeti, the ancient eye of the eclipse, the ocean scalping open the new world, the insatiable glacier, the sea-spray spew, the bacterial bite, the single-cell seethe, the species spit, the rivers the vessels to a heart, the mountain’s hard erection, the sunflower’s swaying thighs, the gray-fur mortification, the pink-flesh fester, the umbilical vine cording us back to the origin.”
I love that the book is illustrated, which was a pleasant surprise. Only a handful of illustrations are included at key moments, but I appreciated them. If one were unfamiliar with the story prior to picking up the book, the illustrations would help emphasize the descriptions of the creature as well as how tormented Strickland is.
And speaking of Strickland, I love that his character gets more depth in the book. He’s a decent villain in the film but was a bit flat. However in the book, we get insight on what motivates him, what he cherishes, what exactly he wants. We observe him gradually lose control and fully become the monster he believes the creature to be. We see how his world, dictated by patriarchal control, is upended by those pushed to the fringes of society and how the pressure to measure up to society’s expectations of him drives him insane. In this way, he reminded me of Jack from Stephen King’s The Shining. Both characters crumble under the strain of society’s expectations of men.
Books have more liberty to include and show more, so more violence and cruelty is included in the novel than the movie. I think doing so upped the stakes and made readers anticipate the rescue of the creature and more sympathetic toward the scientist, Hoffstetler. In a particular case, it shows how much Strickland has devolved that he no longer cares who he hurts as he grasps at regaining control of his world. Both the book and the movie touch on the casual, hurtful meanness toward those sidelined by society, which made the climax, all minority characters joining together to overthrow patriarchal control, even more rewarding. However, I do appreciate that the book touches on the fact that some sidelined by society have more privilege than others and that in order for us to create a better world, we must all work together to make it so.
It was also great to read a book about the power of women and what the strength of women can achieve. In both the movie and the book, Zelda is my favorite character and I love her friendship with Eliza. But, again, the book is better here by touching on the complexities of a friendship between a Black woman and a White woman in 1960s United States. Speaking of which, the book also does a better job of placing us in the historical moment of the story. The movie did a good job by showing protests on the TV and broadcasted on the radio and how characters interact with minorities, but with the novel we are able to get this in those ways and also from the characters’ perspectives and experience. We are privy to what they think and feel about the time they live in.
One character with whom that stands out to me is Lainie, Strickland’s wife. We see her struggle to define herself apart from her husband and role as wife and mother and find confidence in herself and willingness to try something new and become more independent. She didn’t have much presence in the movie, but I loved her character arc in the novel. I was even surprised to read from the creature’s perspective and get insight into his thoughts. That was entirely unexpected. I don’t think it was needed, but I also didn’t mind it. However the backstory on how the creature was caught was greatly appreciated. It added loads of character development to Strickland and revealed his true nature as barbaric and cruel.
In the story in general (both book and movie), I like the hint at Occam’s razor, the philosophical principle that the simplest explanation is best (something like that), in the naming of the government facility where the majority of the story is set. It made me wonder if it’s right to categorize the story as fantasy because fantasy includes complex reasons for why fantastical beings and occurrences appear in a story. It’s why world-building is such an essential part of it. But with The Shape of Water the simplest explanation is the story that we’re given of what happened. If the existence of the amphibious man is so commonplace as to be easily accepted in the story, which is set in the real world of 1960s United States, then I wonder if I should instead categorize this as magical realism, where the fantastic is accepted as commonplace. I don’t know and I might have confused myself in all this, so I’ll just place this in all the genres I think of.
My review there made it seem that the book is way better than the movie. For me, it is because I enjoyed it more, but the movie does some things better, like portraying the underwater scenes, and I preferred the moment of strong emotional dialogue between Eliza and Giles or the creature in the movie than in the book. But I think both the movie and the book are great in their own right and I recommend both. It’s worth seeing the movie for the acting and cinematography and worth reading the book for the character depth and writing.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
I think it’s worth the purchase.
Quotes from the book:
“…a bouquet of fingers arranged at hinky angles, baby-breathed with blood, and vased in loose peels of skin.”
“The bottle cap blunders from sweaty fingers, bickers off floor tiles, squirrels behind the toilet.”
“No new deity fully ascends until the old deity is slain.”