Ann Kidd Taylor’s novel, The Shark Club, is not only a delightful read as we head into spring and summer “beach reading” time, but it is a much-needed antidote to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. Rather than instill fear in readers, The Shark Club highlights the importance of these four-hundred-million-year-old creatures to our ecosystem and debunks the myths that other books and films have created to the detriment of these incredible and endangered animals.
When Maeve Donnelly was bitten by a shark at the age of twelve, instead of instilling in her a fear of sharks, the experience inspired her to study them. “I glimpsed one of the shark’s eyes—a small, black, unblinking night. I felt certain the shark regretted sinking its teeth into me…Its eye disappeared under a lid that closed from the bottom up, and then as suddenly as the commotion had begun, it all ceased. The shark let go of my leg and swam off.”
Maeve knew, even then, that sharks don’t go around maliciously attacking humans but instead sometimes mistake humans for food. She not only didn’t blame the shark, she built her life around studying and protecting them. “The shark had let me go…and I’d been given a chance to be alive. I didn’t want to waste that. I still wanted to try and save a tiny part of the world, to save sharks, just as that one shark had, in the end, saved me.”
Yet on the Florida island where she lives and works as a marine biologist, the importance of leaving sharks in the sea remains a hard sell; after her shark bite eighteen years earlier, local shark hunts were arranged, bloodthirsty tournaments spurred on in part by her incident (which she refuses to call an attack)—and now, just after her thirtieth birthday, as she returns home between research gigs, she learns of a local shark-finning operation that is taking hundreds of sharks from the waters where she studies them, and locals’ reactions—“the best shark is a dead one”—make the chances of catching the criminals seem impossible.
Maeve is the type of marine biologist we need in the world, one who sees marine animals as more than numbers and satellite tags. She names all of the sharks she studies, and she doesn’t eat fish or anything from the sea: “It would be like eating my friends,” she explains to a young girl. As she notes at one point, “I didn’t know how to be dispassionate about sharks, about the ocean, about the things people did to them.”
The novel doesn’t hide the realities of shark finning, in which sharks are captured live, their fins sliced off, then are dumped back overboard to drown in “a slow, tortuous death.” Maeve bemoans the fact that eighty million sharks were killed in a year: “They’re wiping the sharks right out of the ocean…and for what? Shark fin soup!” She notes that the soup itself is nothing “but a lot of gelatinous goo,” despite its undeserved reputation as a delicacy.
She gets drawn more directly into the finning investigation when a finned shark washes up onshore and she’s called to the scene. “I’d ever seen a finned shark, not a real one, and the sight of it, the violence and atrocity of what had been done to it, punched the breath out of me.”
The alarming rate at which sharks are being hunted makes Maeve’s fight both personal and professional. “I’d given my life to sharks, and people were killing them faster than they could reproduce. It was pretty clear at this rate most species would be extinct in a matter of decades.”
A local police sergeant sums up their problem with finding the shark finners, which is the same problem with poachers in the oceans throughout the world: “Look, to get real evidence, we’d have to patrol thousands of nautical miles and board hundreds of boats. We don’t have those kinds of resources.”
The Shark Club is not only a novel about sharks; it is as much a romance as it is a work of eco-fiction. As Maeve struggles to find answers to the shark-finning crime, she also finds herself at a romantic crossroads: On her research trip, a romance had sparked between Maeve and Nicholas, an attractive colleague who understands the plight of the oceans and its creatures and is a kindred spirit, and yet when she returns home, she realizes she still has feelings for her childhood love, Daniel, to whom she was once engaged.
These relationships highlight the struggles of women in science; Maeve’s career choices have affected her love life, and not letting love interfere with her ambitions ultimately led to the cancellation of her wedding to Daniel. After that, she “went underwater in more ways than one,” trying to bury the pain of losing Daniel while immersing herself in her work.
Meanwhile, there are other sub-dramas with the novel’s cast of characters, who include not only Maeve’s love interests but her twin brother, Robin, and her grandmother, who owns the hotel in which Maeve and Robin had been raised after the death of their parents. The novel has several surprising twists, and even if some issues may be wrapped up a bit too neatly, The Shark Club is a satisfying and enlightening read for anyone who loves the oceans, their creatures, and those who devote their lives to protecting them. As Maeve reflects, “without sharks our oceans will die, and if the oceans die, we’re next, but they don’t matter just because they benefit us; they matter simply because they exist.”
Midge Raymond is a co-founder of Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short story collection Forgetting English.