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Shark Heart: A Love Story


Shark Heart: A Love Story

Emily Habeck makes her strange, beguiling, utterly riveting debut with SHARK HEART: A Love Story. Yes, a love story.

When Lewis and Wren meet at a restaurant following Lewis' disastrous first date with another woman, he feels as if he dreamed her. Wren presents herself just as she is, consistent and clear. She is fastidious, punctual and hypervigilant, and she is the most amazing person Lewis has ever met. The reader gets no such description of Lewis through Wren’s eyes, but it doesn’t matter. Wren is so sure of herself, so practical, that her love for him is accepted as the most wondrous thing to ever happen to her, whether she herself can say it or not. That they have met their soulmate in one another is obvious, and the act of marriage seems natural. Yet they are keenly aware that they have married not just the traits they love in one another, but the vast unknowns as well.

"Written in short, vivid chapters, screenplays, definitions and asides, SHARK HEART is, without a doubt, the most bizarre novel I have read in a long time. It is also one of the best."

A few weeks after their wedding, Lewis notices that the bridge of his nose is no longer a triangle of bone, but rather soft cartilage. Dismissing the new texture as the arrival of old age (he is nearly 40, after all), Lewis writes off his new nose as a party trick…until the soft cartilage is accompanied by an unquenchable thirst, loose molars, peculiar changes in his skin texture, and an increase in aggression and irritability. Wren encourages him to visit his doctor, and when he does, he is immediately turned over to a specialist who tells him that he is in the early stages of a Carcharodon carcharias mutation. Simply put, he is turning into a great white shark. His mutation is fast-developing and aggressive, and despite recent advancements in medicine, scientists have not yet found a way to ease the transition between air- and water-breathing. Nor have they found a way to ease the transition between a new marriage that is full of potential and a relationship death sentence.

An actor and a drama teacher, Lewis hides his symptoms and diagnosis at first, considering stage one of his disease the first act of the greatest performance of his life. But Wren is hiding something as well. Despite her traumatic upbringing and devastating relationship with her mother, she recently has begun to wonder about having a baby herself. On the night that she is set to tell this to Lewis, he drops his own shark-sized bombshell, admitting that their marriage now has a deadline, a date upon which he will turn fully into a shark and condemn himself to the sea. “They say the first year of marriage is the hardest,” Wren says.

As Lewis’ mutation plateaus and then develops faster and faster, the couple resign themselves to a new way of life, one in which Wren buys out entire fish market displays, Lewis loses the function of his legs and arms, and the reality of the end of their marriage creeps closer and closer. But with this “death” comes growth, most notably in Wren. Traumatized by her mother’s illness, she starts to dream about a life where she can accompany her husband by boat, never abandoning him at his worst. Lewis, proud of his wife for pushing past her otherwise logical thinking, realizes the truth: one day he will be a danger to Wren, and “later” is no longer an option. And that’s when the real magic happens.

With Lewis’ full transformation approaching, he and Wren begin --- separately and together --- to ponder the moment of metamorphosis. When will Lewis stop being himself and start being a great white shark? What will Wren, committed to keeping her husband safe and alive, do with her time when she is no longer bound to him and his ever-present fish filets and bathtubs? And, most of all, once they have each lost what they most hold dear, how will they ever complete the tasks of simple existence again? As it turns out, bearing witness to the dissolution of their marriage also means bearing witness to the most transcendent growths each character will ever experience, and determining what it really means to be human, to love and to live.

“As they say in the theater, suspend your disbelief. Otherwise, the reality of this world is very much like yours and mine.” Written in short, vivid chapters, screenplays, definitions and asides, SHARK HEART is, without a doubt, the most bizarre novel I have read in a long time. It is also one of the best. The idea of a husband (or wife) becoming a shark over time may turn away the most logical of readers, but Emily Habeck succeeds with this unique conceit because she does not rest on metaphor alone. She chooses instead to focus on real, tangible milestones (the loss of Lewis’ legs, the moment he attacks a colleague) and the necessary ways that Lewis and Wren’s relationship accommodates them. By putting an emphasis on these practicalities, the book becomes far less fabulist than you’d think and far more magical in its reveals of poignant, moving truths about the human condition, love, marriage and even motherhood.

Without weighing down the plot or ignoring the, ahem, shark in the room, Habeck manages to distill an entire life, an entire marriage and an entire condition into brief, sparkling vignettes that are as visceral and striking as a shark bite (excuse the puns, but when does one get the chance to weave oceanic humor into a review?).

SHARK HEART is perfect for readers of Kevin Wilson, Genevieve Gornichec and Kristen Arnett, though I suspect that even those who tend not to swim outside of their comfort zone will find much to love in this wonderfully weird, uncategorizable novel. It reminds us not only of the power of love, but the fact that even at its simplest and purest, love is a conscious act of will and can always be built from the ground up.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 11, 2023

Shark Heart: A Love Story
by Emily Habeck