Before The Shape of Water, there was the brilliant novella Mrs. Caliban
While moviegoers spent the end of 2017 entranced by 'The Shape of Water,' the literary community was busy celebrating the revival of another interspecies romance
While moviegoers spent the end of 2017 entranced by Guillermo del Toro’s interspecies love story The Shape of Water, the literary community was busy celebrating the revival of another romance between a lonely woman and an amphibious creature — that of Mrs. Caliban, the 1982 novella by Rachel Ingalls.
Mrs. Caliban was reissued in November by New Directions, an independent publishing company. The slim, ethereal, masterfully written book would seem like an odd fit for a reprint, given its relative obscurity, were it not a cult favorite among so many famous authors. John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Daniel Handler are among the many to have praised it effusively, and the introduction to the reissue is written by Rivka Galchen — another fan.
Ingalls, 77, is something of a mythic recluse to her fans. She’s written around a dozen well-received books over a 43-year-period, including the 2013 story collection Black Diamond, but with limited commercial success, she’s remained a somewhat unknown quantity. Her stories tend to be picked up years after their original publication, only for them to be reclaimed as “unheralded” masterpieces by a distinguished few. Part of this delayed embrace has to do with the uncommon length of her books, part her distinct stylistic flourishes, and part the fact that she is — yes — a woman.
Consider Mrs. Caliban’s journey to reissue. It began, quite simply, with Galchen looking for strong female writers. “I was just trying to find good things to read, and my bookshelves were 98 percent men,” she explains. Galchen then found Mrs. Caliban listed on a “tiny little list” of great post-WWII British books. “I’d never heard of the book,” she recalls. “I decided to give it a try, and it was out of print, of course, so I got a used copy, and I just thought it was amazing.” She ended up listing Mrs. Caliban in her motherhood-literature compendium Little Labors, published by ND in 2016, in the section headed “Women Writers.”
Enter ND’s president, Barbara Epler, and editor, Tynan Kogane. Epler hadn’t caught Galchen’s mention of Mrs. Caliban while editing Little Labors, but Kogane did. He’d heard of Ingalls already ( some of his favorite authors championed her work) and decided to take a look for himself. Suddenly everyone in the ND office was reading it — and loving it. The rest was, as Kogane puts it, “serendipitous”: ND acquired the rights, attached Galchen to write an introduction, and reissued it the next year with an eye-popping cover.
This extends a trend for the publisher: spotlighting underrated works by women authors such as Memento Mori (Muriel Sparks), The Last Samurai (Helen DeWitt), and Oreo (Fran Ross). “Reissues give everyone — readers, reviewers, booksellers, fellow writers — a whole new start on a book,” Epler explains. “And without getting up on a major soapbox, I do have to say that Mrs. Caliban joins … titles which all should never have languished out of print, ever. And all by women. What did Ian Fleming say? ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.’ And this is four times!”
The goal to grant Mrs. Caliban and Ingalls their long-deserved reputation is well-timed, considering the publishing world’s broader effort to expand the literary canon. Kogane says that often “readers are disheartened [to see] that, in the past, the works defined as ‘classics’ were largely written by white men,” and that Mrs. Caliban is the perfect candidate to challenge the norm.
And what is perhaps most striking about the novella is the degree to which Mrs. Caliban feels utterly contemporary. The romantic fable, which blends the macabre and the poignant, deftly poses the kind of questions about power, gender, and sexuality that are dominating the present cultural conversation. It would be fair to call the book a complex, funhouse-mirror version of The Shape of Water — a film that has been met with acclaim for its inclusive message — whose provocations sneak up on you. As Galchen puts it, Mrs. Caliban avoids “the hatchet-on-the-head, propaganda-opinion-piece way of thinking about these issues.”
Indeed, as a feminist piece with a deep romantic core, that might best explain Mrs. Caliban’s ability to emerge as an unlikely literary classic. There’s the sheer entertainment factor — steamy Aquaman sex, anyone? — but then just underneath is a real depth, a quiet brilliance in its study of behavior and circumstance. It cuts through the noise, enlightening while also resonating, soothing in its dreamy surrealism. And isn’t that the perfect recipe for an enduring classic? “It makes you wonder what was going on when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came out,” Epler cracks. “Were they in the middle of a war, maybe? Because it seems like solace.”
Mrs. Caliban is available for purchase here.