Tag Archives: myths

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Brides of Rollrock Island’

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.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

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 Colin Farrell movie, 'Ondine', a scene from which is shown here, also features the legend of the selkie. In this case, Farrell, a fisherman, finds a selkie woman in his net, and becomes bewitched by her. Image: ilovewildfox.com

The Colin Farrell movie, ‘Ondine’, a scene from which is shown here, also features the legend of the selkie. In this case, Farrell, a fisherman, finds a selkie woman in his net, and becomes entranced by her.
Image: ilovewildfox.com

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!

On Storytelling…

I’m thinking about storytelling this morning, and why we do it; I’m wondering about it because yesterday I came across another book, soon to be published, with a very similar premise to an idea I’ve been working on for a long time.  It’s not my WiP (which is a stroke of luck, sort of!) but something else I’ve written a lot of words on – something like 70,000 – and which I don’t really want to jettison out of hand.  I’m hoping there’s a nugget of story in there, something unique to me, which I can take and build on; something I can make which is different to what exists already.

I blogged recently about a similar theme – i.e. an idea which you’ve cherished and which you then see appearing in the world with a different author’s name on the cover – so I’m trying to take the positive out of it.  The positive is: I must be having good ideas.

But it’s funny, this impulse we have to tell stories, to make things up and to create plots and characters who do things, sometimes things we could or would never do ourselves.  What do we want to achieve as a result?  My ‘previous life’ as an academic who undertook research into texts and stories which were very old – as old as the language itself – means I’ve had an interest in this stuff for a long time.  Nowadays, perhaps, one of the impulses to tell stories is to achieve some sort of fame or immortality – to be remembered as a writer or a storyteller.  That’s a recent thing, in my opinion; so many of the most wonderful stories from the past are completely anonymous, including the vast majority of the medieval romances which I love so much.  I’ve often lamented the fact that we have no idea who wrote most of them, and I wish sometimes that they’d been a little more like modern writers and had thought to ‘sign’ their work.  The few ‘stars’ from the medieval period – Chaucer, Gower, Langland, Hoccleve, Malory, Marie de France (my personal heroine), among a small amount of others known only through the texts they wrote (like ‘the Gawain-poet’) – are vastly outnumbered by the writers of texts which display such skill and talent, and which are entirely free of any trace of their author.  That’s not to mention, of course, the texts which have been entirely lost; there’s no way of knowing how many are no longer in existence, what they were about, and who wrote them.  I lament, at times, for the lost hours of labour and love, sweat and toil, that went into the creation of works like these, of which no trace now remains.

The philosopher Richard Kearney once said something like: ‘We tell each other stories to tell each other who we are’.  If memory serves, he was talking about tales told around campfires by prehistoric men and women, who created the world around them every night after dark through stories and legends, but I think his insight can apply to everyone, and to every time.  In earlier ages, when the court poet (or ‘file’ in Irish) was one of the most important figures in the retinue because he knew the tribe’s history and was responsible for singing it into being, the idea of telling stories to bind a people together or, literally, tell them who they were, was vitally important.  It’s still important now.  It’s little wonder that the mythology of a country is closely guarded by its people, and why we are (or should be) very proud of our ‘national epic’; the English have the majestic Beowulf, the Finns their Kalevala, Icelanders their amazing Sagas and, in Ireland, we have our tales of the Sidhe, the Tuatha de Danann, the Firbolg, the Fomorians, Cuchulainn and Fionn MacCumhaill, among many others.  These sort of tales tell us what was important to our ancestors, what they feared and valued, the principles upon which they founded their societies.  For this reason, as well as the fact that they’re breathtaking works of art, they should be treasured by all of us.

Stories we tell can often say more about us than anything else – the kinds of characters we create betray our own fears and desires, our own loves and dreams; the kinds of situations they get into, and the means by which they make their daring escapes, tell the reader about the adventures dear to the author’s heart.  They might be seen as escapism and fantasy by a modern reader, but to earlier ‘readers’ (I should say ‘audiences’, as most early texts were, of course, recited aloud instead of read in private), they had the added thrill of being real.  When we read Beowulf now, we can caress the words describing the monster Grendel with our eyes and our minds, marvelling at the skill of the poet.  If we were listening to it around a fire in an eighth-century meadhall, we’d probably be more inclined to pull our cloak tighter around ourselves and hope desperately that tonight would not be the night that the monster would come calling.  We’d feel a greater and more passionate loyalty towards our fellow men, and a deep desire to protect our boundaries, our land, and pay homage to our king or liege-lord.  Perhaps that’s the real value of storytelling – it brings people together.  For the brief duration of the tale, every mind listening is focused on the same goal; every eye reading is in the same place, willing the characters on.  Characters, whether the irreproachable heroes of early sagas or the more fleshed-out, flawed human figures of later stories, carry the hopes and deepest desires of every human mind who has come into contact with them – including the mind that made them, and the minds who consume them.

But that’s just my two cents.  What other reasons are there for telling one another tales?  I can’t help but be influenced by my interest in the early periods of the world; has anyone any other thoughts?  Whatever stories you’re telling today, may they be good ones… Happy Tuesday to you all.