Book Review: Shark Heart by Emily Habeck

Review by Alicia McClintic


When we talk about “the humanities,” we’re talking about areas of study like literature, art, music, and philosophy that deal with what it means to be human– what is essential to the human experience, what do humans need and what do they value, what is unique about the human spirit? Exploring these questions is one of the primary reasons I love to read, especially when a book can offer me a new kind of window into the depth and complexity of humanity.
Shark Heart by Emily Habeck offers such a unique and poignant reflection on what it means to be human with a touch of magical realism, a kaleidoscopic structure of vignettes, a multifaceted study of love and loss over multiple generations. But, brace yourself, because it is a weird little book. Yet it feels so deeply human in every scene, and I would love to see more people pick it up and discuss it.

We open with a scene of Lewis and Wren, in love and just getting married. After only a few weeks of marriage, Lewis is diagnosed with a carcharodon-carcharias mutation— he is turning into a great white shark. In this reality, there are a variety of rare genetic mutations where people become all kinds of animals (it’s as real as cancer or dementia are here and now), but even so, this specific mutation is particularly rare. Lewis will fully transform into a shark within a year, and the only thing Wren can say is, “Well, they say the first year of marriage is the hardest” while they both know there won’t be any other years to compare it to. We bear witness to this first year of their marriage and the aftermath. There are moments of joy and laughter, grief and fear. As Lewis’s mutation gets more advanced, his personality begins to change, his eating and sleeping habits change, and he needs to be in water all the time. He can’t do the things he used to do, he has to leave his job, he cannot maintain friendships or relationships with his family. Wren becomes a caretaker and she also loses so much– but more than anything, she loses herself in her grief and her obsession with caring for her husband. Eventually, Wren must make a difficult and complicated trip to get Lewis to the Pacific Ocean where she must release him to live a new life as a shark. And then she must learn to live without him, and he must learn to live without everyone and everything he ever knew. In the second half of the book, we witness the ways both Lewis and Wren are finding a way to live in their new and separate realities, to process their grief, to begin again. Interwoven with this marriage and separation story is the story of Wren’s mother, Angela, who also suffered a mutation (into a komodo dragon), and the ways Wren makes sense of all this love and loss and joy in her life. I think throughout the story, Wren is our anchor, and I loved watching her journey. This fantastical premise of people who mutate into animals isn’t exactly a metaphor / allegory, even though I see a lot of similarities to the way folks experience chronic or terminal illness. But rather, I think this fantastical premise is more like an entry point to big questions: What does it mean to be a human, to be a BEING? Can we ever truly know or love someone— or are we forever mysterious, even to ourselves? How do we love when loss is inevitable? How do we find
the courage to truly love people when we’re all always changing and when we know we will all (eventually) die? How do we move through such tremendous grief and loss and suffering? How do we turn toward each other rather than turn away? How do we know when it’s time to release someone, or release ourselves from?

In addition to big questions about what it means to be human, the author is playing with language and structure in a beautiful way. There are super short sections and vignettes that keep us turning from one perspective to another (and keep us turning pages). For example, Lewis is a high school drama teacher, and several short sections of the novel are written as a play, with character markers and stage notes. Some sections are just a few lines with a super sharp observation. Considering this is Habeck’s debut novel, I cannot wait to see what she writes next. I underlined so so many beautiful sentences, but here is a favorite: “Have you ever looked at the world in a new way, like it’s the same world you’ve always seen, but now it’s different in a very important way, and you can never look at it in the old way ever again? And you want to look at it in the old way, but you know the new way is better, sort of?”
Shark Heart reminded me of Chouette by Claire Oshetsky– another weird little book that offers a poignant exploration of the complexities of motherhood. While reading Shark Heart, I also thought a lot about Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, which is another exploration of a marriage in multiple perspectives, but definitely grounded in reality for those not ready to step into the magical-realism element. Finally, consider reading the novellas A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer For the Crown-shy by Becky Chambers as an extended meditation on the question: “what do humans need?”