Monday, 9 April 2012

Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

Book cover of The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
Random House were nice enough to send me a copy of The Brides of Rollrock Island for my reading pleasure. I'd read Tender Morsels, also by Margo Lanagan, a year or so ago and loved it, so I just had to get my hands on her latest book. She's won four World Fantasy Awards for her works already, and I doubt this book will be any exception. The sheer beauty of it should earn it some recognition at least.

Plot summary - Rollrock Island is a lonely rock of gulls and waves, blunt fishermen and their homely wives. Life is hard for the families who must wring a poor living from the stormy seas. But Rollrock is also a place of magic - the scary, salty-real sort of magic that changes lives forever. Down on the windswept beach, where the seals lie in herds, the outcast sea witch Misskaella casts her spells - and brings forth girls from the sea - girls with long, pale limbs and faces of haunting innocence and loveliness - the most enchantingly lovely girls the fishermen of Rollrock have ever seen.

But magic always has its price. A fisherman may have and hold a sea bride, and tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into those wide, questioning, liquid eyes, he will be just as transformed as she is. He will be equally ensnared. And in the end the witch will always have her payment.

While not completely knowledgeable about selkies, is is a myth I've always been interested in. For those that don't know, selkies are the Scottish legends about seals that shed their skin to become beautiful women. If you hide their skin, they cannot return to the water and must stay on land until they can reclaim it. Although Margo Lanagan never mentions the word selkies, it's clear that this is what the women in The Brides of Rollrock Island are based upon.

For me, it wasn't the selkie-wives themselves that captured my attention - it was the effect that this selfish scheme had on the island itself. As soon as Able Marten convinces the witch to bring him a seal for a wife, every warm-blooded male on Rollrock wants one for himself - even the ones who have wives already. Eventually the human women are all replaced and leave for the mainland as they realise they can never compete with the lovely women that come from the sea. Soon there are no human females left and mainlanders are warned to never set foot on Rollrock. It changes the island completely and it's fascinating to watch.

It's told from multiple perspectives, so you can see the dilemma from all sides. This switches over five or six times, from the sea-witch herself to the son of one of the seal-maidens. I'm not normally a fan of multi-perspective stories, but it really does works in this book. It tends to change over just as you start to feel comfortable with a character, but you've forgotten your irritation within a few pages and you get drawn into the new character's thoughts.

The timeline also changes as the narrative moves back and forth - another thing that I usually don't like, but only adds to the flow in this case. It spans multiple generations, but it's never difficult to work out where you are in the story or who the person talking actually is.

It's just beautiful. From the sea-maidens' transformation right down to their homesickness, everything is tasteful, wonderful and never feels at all silly. It's definitely a young adult book and I couldn't ever really forget that, but it's a wonderful story.

Apparently The Brides of Rollrock Island was originally part of an Australian short story collection called Sea Hearts. Honestly, if I'd have read that before picking up the book, I might have stayed away - short stories are usually nowhere near as effective when turned into a novel. I have to say though, this works very well. It's more of a collection of inter-related stories than a novel, but it's a fascinating look at the selkie myth.

Visit Margo Lanagan's website here, or find her on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to have to read that! (Next year or something, it will probably be hard to get. Boo.) I'm a secret selkie addict--The Secret of Roan Inish is my favorite movie, and nobody likes Susan Cooper's "Seaward" except me...


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