In The Brides of Rollrock Island, Margo Lanagan has created a marvelous reworking of selkies, which seem to be an underused mythology. I think there might be one in a Patricia McKillip book, but I can’t remember reading any others. If you have, leave a comment! I’d love to try some more.
This is a complex book, for all its relative shortness (305 pages, US edition),* and the story it tells spans several generations, from Misskaella to Lory Severner. The book is broken into long chunks of narrative from different characters. I actually didn’t mind this version of alternating narratives, a device which often falls short for me. My one complaint in this area is that the various voices sound too much alike. In this case, though, I’m willing to look beyond this because the setting is small and self-contained enough that there should be a local dialect, and also it helps to create a cohesive reading experience.
And the language, oh the language is so beautiful. I opened to a random page and found this paragraph (relatively unspoilery, I think):
I realized I did not want to leave the front room, which was full of the seal-girl’s wonderful wild smell. It was as if the whole ocean had pooled in here, fish and salt water, weed and whale, seabirds slicing through the fresh air above. Could a girl fall under a seal-girl’s spell? A little knifing of fear cut me free, and I forced myself up the hall to the kitchen doorway, to the comforting sight of Mam eating supper, perhaps tireder-looking than usual, but to all other appearances living through an ordinary evening.
Isn’t that gorgeous? I love it when poetic language really works in a book, and it does here. Lanagan is also able to weave together these lovely descriptions with realistic everyday dialogue which keep the whole thing from sounding too stilted. Which is to say that though the prose is poetic, it is also effortless and understated, not drawing attention to itself except now and then. It’s only on a second reading that I noticed the lovely little echo of seabirds slicing and a knifing of fear in the paragraph above.
This is also one of those books where the setting itself is almost as important as the characters. Rollrock Island is a force in the midst of the story, an isolated, beautiful place. Its people may be divided amongst themselves, but they present a united front to strangers. I actually was reminded several times of Thisby from The Scorpio Races–the people of Rollrock have that same complicated relationship with their island. (Though a vague suggestion that this story took place actually in our world threw me off for a bit, I would up willfully forgetting that bit. And I can’t find it again, so maybe I’m making that up.)
As far as themes go, there is a lot here about beauty and love, about the relationship between men and women. The narrators themselves are interesting, because just barely under the surface of all of their stories is the potential for unreliability, even more than the inherent unreliability of all first person narrators. There’s never anything to absolutely suggest that they aren’t telling the full and literal truth, so perhaps it might be better to say that their narratives create a sense of instability, of shifting sands.
And perhaps that is part of the reason I ultimately felt, despite the very apparent strengths of the book, that I wasn’t sure how I thought about it, or how I was supposed to think about it. For instance, there is a lot, as I said, about men and women, but I was never sure exactly what Lanagan was trying to say about that. Men’s desires draw the seal-wives out of the ocean, but it’s Misskaella who’s orchestrating the whole thing. Misskaella is a sympathetic character in her section of narrative, but then her voice disappears and we are left guessing at her thoughts and emotions for the rest of the story. Now, I wasn’t necessarily reading with a stringent literary focus, so it’s possible that’s my problem. Or it could simply be that Lanagan is not sure herself, that she’s being too subtle, that her point is that there’s no message (though I have a hard time buying that one).
Moreover, although there are a number of women active and present both in the text and as narrators, I found myself unsettled by the way the seal-women were presented. Unearthly beautiful, seductive simply by their presence, voiceless even within the story itself–Lanagan is surely too skilled a writer and too committed a feminist to be unaware of what she’s doing here, but I found it hard to parse. Are we supposed to see them as Other? As a symbol of women everywhere? Again, I simply can’t figure it out and it’s frustrating.
So, although there are many–so many!–things to recommend this book, and I’m still amazed by how well Lanagan adapts the selkie myth, I’m not sure if I actually liked it. Am I missing something vital? Please tell me if you have any insights!
Printzliness–I suspect that this one could easily wind up with an Honor. Lanagan has won an Honor twice already, and her command of language and craft is definitely on display here. I personally would be disappointed if it won gold, but then I am quite partisan for another book.
Cover–I hate all the covers I’ve seen for this book. Can’t we come up with something that conveys the eeriness of the seal-wives, or the rocky shore of Rollrock? Something ala Monstrous Beauty, but less dark. This one would be okay if the girl was posed and dressed differently.
Book source: public library
Book information: Knopf, 2012; YA (though there’s a great discussion in the comments)
* I was still trying to read the last 100 pages of The Diviners when I wrote that sentence. 578 pages, guys. 578.