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Love Changes a Person

Emily Habeck’s Shark Heart is a wild journey of transformation

Emily Habeck’s debut novel, Shark Heart, is a wild book: an idiosyncratic, even fantastical, allegory that includes cinematic dialogue, poetry as prose, many chapters so short they could almost fit under your fingernail, and bafflingly rich emotional resonance.

The first half, set in Dallas, focuses on Lewis and Wren’s romance over the course of 2016, when both are 35. Before Lewis asks Wren to be his wife, he tells her, “You make everything better than when you found it, even me.” She accepts his proposal, they wed, and, within weeks of their wedding, Lewis begins to turn into a great white shark.

In short order, his nose flattens, then becomes entirely cartilaginous, and his mouth sprouts three extra layers of teeth. The texture of his skin changes, his thirst and appetite increase, his focus diminishes, and he feels flashes of both aggression and apathy. His night vision sharpens, and his eyelids gradually disappear. Lewis feels buoyant “as if he were floating, not walking,” and he “could predict someone’s movements before they made them.”

“Early stages of a Carcharodon carcharias mutation,” his doctor announces. “We don’t usually have a way to ease the transition between air and water breathing … Some maintain a few human features at the time of release, but these features do resolve in time. Patients typically continue to develop after being released in the ocean.”

For the next month, Lewis avoids disclosing this diagnosis to Wren. A high school theater teacher, Lewis is described in the book’s list of main characters as “failed actor, that is, until now, the performance of his lifetime.” Wren, meanwhile, “would do almost anything to protect her ordinariness.” When, at last, Lewis tells her he’s turning into a shark, Wren replies, “They say the first year of marriage is the hardest.”

Alas, they both know there will not be another year. Lewis’ mutation will be complete within 10 months, 12 at most. Wren will be left with no choice but to release him into the ocean or, she’s told by their palliative care nurse, “the government will do it for you.” One night in advance, Wren spends thousands of dollars on scuba equipment for herself in the hopes of their somehow staying together.

Habeck, who holds dual master’s degrees from Vanderbilt Divinity School and Peabody College, delivers a tightly written, tense, and emotionally charged novel with comical moments that aren’t necessarily funny to the characters. After attending a support group for caretakers, for instance, Wren tells Lewis, “A woman with a zebra brother talked the entire time. I don’t want to go back.” And, later, after Wren cuts herself on one of his teeth, Lewis blames himself. “Worst of all, at the sight of her blood, Lewis had felt hungry.”

For all its absurdism, there is of course a serious strand to Shark Heart, one that investigates love not with judgment but curiosity. Form, by its very nature, can be malformed, deformed, informed, conformed, reformed, misinformed, and transformed. This story, ultimately, belongs to Wren and, in the course of her self-actualization, her revelations and acceptances, such as this:

The surface of love was a feeling, but beyond this thin layer, there was a fathomless, winding maze of caverns offering many places to see and explore. Wren used to think romantic passion only grew more intense in the depths. But this belief was naive and impractical, a by-product of a certainty-obsessed culture that equates love with longing and views ambivalence as a fatal flaw. Wren saw now how passion was delicate and temporary, a visitor, a feeling that would come and go. Feelings fled under pressure; feelings did not light the darkness. What remained strong in the deep, the hard times, was love as an effort, a doing, a conscious act of will.

The book’s latter 200 pages cast backward in time, unfolding between 1980-2005, in Oklahoma. The main focus is Wren’s mother, Angela, before and after her unplanned pregnancy, and her primary relationships, including with her daughter.

The omniscient third-person narration offers surprising flashes of characters’ inner lives. Angela, at fifteen, becoming pregnant with Wren serves as metamorphosis, a running theme throughout the novel: “Unlike puberty, pregnancy was a physical transition with a tangible end.” In the novel’s second half, Angela swerves, skids, starts, and stumbles like, well, a woman who became a parent before she herself was fully formed. The whole book ties Angela’s and Wren’s narratives together and the stitches don’t show.

Shark Heart is more than a great, albeit fiercely odd, summer read. It is a romance, a tragedy, a fable, a rumination on love and loss — or, rather, the ways in which loss fuels love and one’s capacity to love and be loved. This is a work of fiction unlike anything you’ve ever read and a showcase for the imaginative Emily Habeck.

Love Changes a Person

Sarah Norris has written about books and culture for The New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and others. After many years away, she’s back in her hometown of Nashville.