Newlyweds Lewis and Wren are an unlikely couple. Lewis loves performing –– both in his personal life on the stage. He moved to New York in his early 20s to pursue his dream of becoming a Broadway actor. Wren is practical and had a hard time sitting through her first play.
Lewis draws up tree house sketches on anything he can find: old napkins, the backs of invitations, cardboard boxes and more. Wren wants to have an orderly house and is always trying to get him to organize his sketches. She even buys him a plastic file to organize them. Lewis appreciates the concept but never remembers to actually organize.
Oh, and Lewis is slowly turning into a great white shark.
In “Shark Heart,” by Emily Habeck, Lewis’ transformation takes place over the course of nine months. It’s not sudden like in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” The mutation, Carcharodon carcharias, is just one of many known conditions in this magical realist world where people sometimes mutate into animals (it’s not explained in detail).
The unconventional plot hooks you in, but this book shines in capturing relationships: between Wren and Lewis, her new friend who is pregnant with twin birds (also a mutation), and her family. Lewis and Wren’s relationship is an ode to the way that vastly different people can fall in love with each other, and the story feels like an allegory for the ways a relationship changes when someone is diagnosed with a terminal medical condition. Wren slowly loses the man she loves, slowly at first and then all at once.
Fundamentally, Habeck’s debut isn’t just about a guy turning into a shark. So sci-fi/dystopian fans shouldn’t expect rich world building in that respect. It’s a story about generational trauma, breaking cycles, and loving people even, and especially, when it’s temporary. Wren and Lewis are doomed from the start, but readers will root for them against all odds.
Vibes and structure-wise, it reminds me of “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin. “Shark Heart” has a beautiful cover and has a slower third quarter that deviates from the rest of the book but then you can’t stop reading it. It’s experimental and the narrative is intercut with scenes from a play based on the events of the book that Lewis is writing.
This debut novel has a voice you’ll be excited to return to each time you pick up the book and will miss when it’s over. It has all the elements to be the next big book on Bookstagram/Booktok. I can’t wait to see what Habeck has for us next.
“Shark Heart” is out today (August 8). Thank you to NetGalley for the advanced reader’s copy.