There is one *tiny* spoiler in this review, about the structure of the book, so if you want to skip reading it until you’ve read the book, I won’t mind! Now – on with the show…
So, I’ve always had a ‘thing’ for the legend of the selkie, and also I love books which take myths and legends and get inside them like a hand inside a glove, bringing them to life. Margo Lanagan’s ‘The Brides of Rollrock Island’ is a book like that, a book which explores what it would be like to live on an island where ‘seal-wives’ are a reality, what it would feel like to be the one with the power to call them, what it feels like to love them, and how dearly guarded they must remain.
Rollrock Island is a place battered by the sea. Life depends on the water, both for sustenance and employment, but also for the safe passage of the ferry to Cordlin, on the mainland, a place which is as important to the book’s setting as the island itself. The book is told through the eyes of several different characters, each of which gets his or her own section, and whose voice is allowed to speak to the reader directly – each of these sections is connected, of course. Our first narrator (and a figure whose presence, for good or ill, is central to the whole book, mentioned in every section) is the wonderfully named Miskaella Prout, a stout and ungainly girl, the youngest of her large family. Taunted and unbeloved by the people of Rollrock, men and women alike, she possesses one thing which sets her apart from her fellow islanders – her ability to communicate with and summon the seals which live in the waters all around the island. As she grows, we see her power develop to the point where she is able to call forth the human form from within the sealskin, and this is the cornerstone upon which not only our story, but also the community of Rollrock, is built.
Men begin to approach Miskaella with the intention of asking her to call them forth a wife from the waves; they pay her handsomely, and so she complies. This is the only value she has for the islanders – belittled and looked down upon for her appearance and her lack of perceived ‘beauty’, her only power lies in her ability, and so she uses it. Miskaella’s own relationship with the seals is a tormented one, in some ways, and she is deeply connected to them while also hating, on some levels, their very presence.They represent something painful to her, something she hates because she cannot possess it, and this dictates the way her life unfolds. Her story is extraordinarily compelling and affecting – I found my opinion of her switching back and forth as I read, and as I grew to know her more and more; by the end, Miskaella’s fate had me on my knees, emotionally speaking.
The sea-wives, the enigmatic heart of this novel, are beautiful, and exotic, each of them tall and slender and dark-haired by contrast to the shorter, rounder and more red-headed islanders. There is no mistaking them – clearly, they are not of the land, not of our world. Their song, their slippery language and their loveliness endear them to their men, but the one thing that seems to be most lovely about them is the most troubling: their pliancy, and complete reliance on their husbands. As one character, Dominic Mallett, puts it in his chapter:
Kitty [his human fiancée] herself never looked at me this way; always her own next purposes and plans moved somewhere in her eyes and readied words behind her lips. This girl [the sea-wife, at this point unnamed] only waited, her whole being, her whole future, fixed on me. (pp. 166-67)
This chilling reality is one explored by Lanagan, and one of the most interesting aspects of the book. The women are purchased for one reason only – to be wives, and hopefully mothers; the men do not consider the idea that in ripping them from the sea they might be destroying their first family, in other words their seal-pups, whom the women love as much as their human children. The idea that the seal-wives are individuals with their own will, agency and inner life isn’t seen as important. Their power to return to the sea, to go where they will, is removed from them and kept secret – we are told the women themselves ask for this to be done, so that they are not tempted to go back to the water, but this comes second-hand, as reported speech. As well as this, the men must name their wives; the women, newly emerged from their sealskins, cannot speak until they are given a land-name by a man, and their own seal-name is unpronounceable with a human tongue. It takes them a long time to get used to life on land, but for all that they are quiet, temperate, obedient and delicate women, undemanding wives and agreeable mothers, all of which is in contrast with the island-women. The human women are depicted realistically, with faults and bad tempers and imperfect lives, all things which make them unique – but, in comparison to the sea-wives, all things which cannot be borne by the men. These ‘poles’ of femininity – the unknowable ideal, and the familiar Everywoman – are held up throughout the book, never finally being reconciled. The story makes no judgements, leaving that up to the reader.
The book explores what it is like to be bewitched by a sea-wife, what it is like to have one as your mother, and how it feels to have them rip apart your family. One particularly wrenching scene, again involving Dominic Mallett, sees him describing the feelings he has for his newly-found sea-wife, Neme, as ‘real’ love, despite the fact that his human fiancée Kitty is in Cordlin waiting for his return; this question of what ‘love’ means hangs over the whole book. We see love (and the lack of it) between siblings, parents and children, friends and companions, and we see marriages both happy and sad. The undercurrent to the story is that no matter how much the men love their sea-wives – or perhaps, think they love them – it is, of course, not enough. For the selkie, the call of the sea will always be stronger than the call of the land, and any reader familiar with the legend will know what must happen. Despite their attempts to rein the women in, to name them and tie them to the hearth, the men of Rollrock cannot keep their once-malleable wives from what they wish for most, and it is love – not from their husbands, this time – which gives them back their power.
Having said that, the book is far from predictable – the manner of the sea-wives’ leaving, and what they take with them, is unexpected, and the final chapter exposes a secret which left me speechless with emotion. Ms. Lanagan’s writing is exceptional – rhythmical, poetic, imaginative and memorable, it makes the book, and the story, flow like the seawater she so beautifully describes, full of bubbles and light and hidden depths. The only thing I hoped for as the book progressed was that she would devote a chapter to one of the sea-wives, and allow her to have her say; I was disappointed when this didn’t happen. However, looking back on it for the purposes of this review, I now realise: that was the whole point. The sea-wives are unknown and unknowable, visible only from the outside, their minds as alien to us as ours are to the seals’. We see them described from many viewpoints – some loving, others hateful – and that is as much as we can, and should, expect. We are left understanding them as much as their husbands do, and that is fitting.
‘The Brides of Rollrock Island’ is a novel which is structured and written beautifully, and left me finishing the final page with a deeply satisfied sigh. It’s a definite recommendation, for me.
Happy weekend – and may you read well!