BOOK REVIEW: ‘In the Shallows’ by Tanya Byrne

April 7, 2024

Brighton-based author Tanya Byrne‘s In the Shallows isn’t just a story – it’s an emotional journey that speaks directly to the heart of young lesbians and the wider LGBTQ+ community. Set against the backdrop of Brighton, this slow-burn sapphic second-chance love story delves deep into themes of longing, loss, and the enigmatic power of memory.

With careful writing from the start, we are drawn into the mystery surrounding Nico, a girl rescued from the sea on New Year’s Day with no memory of her past. This miraculous recovery of someone thought lost offers a gripping narrative that explores the profound impact of forgetting and remembering on our sense of self.

Through Nico’s journey of self-re-discovery, Byrne invites us to contemplate the complexities of identity and the ways in which memory shapes our understanding of who we are, and those who keep those memories, and who cherish, chisel and craft those memories can also affect the way we remember who, and what, we are.

This is a YA novel, so it’s full of drama and passion, toxic relationships, immaturity, longing, emotional struggles and family trying to do the best for their emergent adults, and also parents set right against accepting what their teenagers are. Mara, a young woman grappling with her own demons and haunted by the memory of her lost love, has spent time grieving for Nico and acknowledging her unrequited love and, in her own clumsy way, finding a way to move on.

Mara is more than a touch obsessed about Nico, in an unhealthy doormat kinda way, a teenage crush of an unhealthy kind, Nico appears to be unaware of what Mara feels, and distances herself more and more before abruptly ghosting her just before her accident. When fate reunites Mara and Nico, their connection ignites a spark of hope amidst the desperately grasped shadows of uncertainty.

Byrne beautifully captures Mara’s hopes of an opportunity to actually experience love with this changed Nico and the sheer joy of finding someone believed to be lost forever. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the transformative power of love to heal even the deepest wounds.

It’s also – from my older experienced queer perspective – a testament to daft teenagers, selfish undeserving focuses of desire and the way they’re obsessed with people who do them no good whatsoever. We all have that Ex who is really a ‘Why?’… but hey Kweeine the book ain’t written for you, so shhhhhh.

But just as Mara and Nico’s relationship begins to blossom, a looming twist threatens to unravel everything they hold dear. Nico’s gradual recollection of her past introduces a new layer of complexity and intrigue, leaving Mara to confront the truth behind Nico’s accident and previous behaviours. This compares and contrasts two very different types of parenting, giving us insight into the behaviours of the people who are supposed to hold our interest dear to their hearts.

As secrets are unveiled and alliances tested, In the Shallows builds to a crescendo of suspense that will keep readers on the edge of their seats until the very end. Brighton and the surrounding landscapes are evocatively written about by Byrne who embeds the action in a real gritty Sussex by the Sea, with all the elements of quirk and character that the big city can offer.

It’s difficult to discuss the ‘reveal’ here without spoiling the plot but I was uncomfortable with the way the motivations of the manipulative characters were used to drive the narrative on, it felt unsympathetic to a complex individual who were themselves wildly emotionally adrift. It’s a curious and brutal telling of this character’s story as what sets this novel apart is its portrayal of LGBTQ+ experiences with authenticity and nuance, but also without ever calling them what they are.

The word ‘lesbian’ is never used to talk about Mara and Nico’s relationship, but it is depicted with sensitivity and depth, capturing the raw emotions of teenage angst and the powerful, complex motivations of those around them who appear to have their best interests at heart. It’s a poignant reminder that love knows no bounds, that people do shocking things and that true acceptance lies in embracing our authentic selves, and that families can be hell, but can also heal. Perhaps here Bryne is showing that it takes people a long while to say the words for the first time that will define and shape their entire life.

In the Shallows is a must-read for YA LGBTQ+ readers seeking a story that will tug at their heartstrings and leave them breathless with anticipation. Byrne’s masterful storytelling and compelling characters make this novel an unforgettable exploration of love, loss, and the enduring power of memory. Her subtle detailing of intersectional and diverse families is lovely, based around traditions and food and the ways those adapt with second or third generation family members growing up in their own ways.

A lovely read for the young adult reader, so dive into the depths of In the Shallows and prepare to be swept away by its spellbinding tale of second chances and unbreakable bonds.

Out now, £9.99

For more info or to order the book see the publisher’s website here: