The Brides of Rollrock Island – Margo Lanagan

the brides of rollrock islandThe Brides of Rollrock Island is a serious examination of the selkie myth and the long-term impact interspecies marriages have on a small island community. This book has also published under the same Sea Hearts.

The selkie myth assumes that inside every seal there is a beautiful person waiting to come out. Wikipedia says that a fisherman comes across a naked woman dancing on the beach, and so he naturally steals her seal skin. They fall in love, do the marriage thing and have a great time doing so. Until the wife finds her old skin and leaps back into the ocean to be a seal again. Very, very strange.

People marrying sea creatures. Isn’t that how Innsmouth started?

Lanagan has a slightly different take on the selkie trope. She has the ugly old witch Misskaella extract girls from seals, provided that the local fishermen pay her to do so. Basically, the selkies are the fantasy equivalent of Mail-Order Brides. Misskaella makes quite a packet, which is great for her as the text makes it explicit that she is too ugly to get married. (Fortunately, she discovers male selkies.) The witch also has a poorly hidden streak of sadism, enjoying the misery and confusion that the seal wives bring to the community.

Not-so-vividly characterised were the selkies. They didn’t have much personality beyond complying with their husbands, loving their sons and pining for the sea.
The selkie’s vague characterisation was the biggest problem I had with this book

I suppose they had a certain style about them. The way Lanagan describes them left a Mediterranean impression in my head, but their decor choices were unusual. Shells hang from the walls of their houses, they prefer plants that look like coral, they craft nets out of seaweed, and they always smell like the sea.

The most important word in Lanagan’s book is mam. Not the American mom or the normal mum, but mam. I think that’s meant to be Scottish, and I was initially worried that the story would be obscured by Scottish phonetics. You know, ye ken. Happily, the rest of Lanagan’s dialogue is written in comprehensible English. There comes a point at which the entire female population are selkies, and that is when the word mam gains its potency. A particularly touching moment occures when the young boys liberate their mams by retrieving their seal skins. I think that by the end of book, Rollrock Island’s entire system of gender and species relations is encapsulated in that one word: mam.

Like the last book I reviewed, I read this book for Uni, and my class was challenged to draw a plot diagram for this story. (A horizontal line that rises for tense moments, and slackens for the relaxed ones, ya ken.) The closest thing the book has to a main character is that crafty witch Misskaella, as the beginning of the book is localized through her and ends just after her death, but there are many portions concerning many different protagonists. Some are fishermen, one is the witch’s apprentice, and another is a mainland woman visiting a house she inherited on the island. I’d describe this book’s plot less like a traditional beginning-middle-end-problem-solution thing, but more like a timeline. This novel is really a collection of short stories and novellas united by a common setting, cast and premise. A bit like The Years of Rice and Salt.

I’d like to read more stories set on Rollrock Island. Part of what makes this book memorable is that each story is some time after the one that preceded it, to the point that cameras and buses appear in the later ones. Whenever fairy tales and modernity collide like this, I am very happy. I’d also like to read a story narrated by one of these seal wives, to see how Lanagan would describe the consciousness shift from seal to human and why exactly the selkies are so accommodating.

Give this book a chance. You’ll enjoy it.

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4 comments

    1. I’ve never been outside of Australia, so these UK phonetic accents can baffle me. The mam thing put me in mind of the Nac Mac Feegle from Discworld, so I pegged the Rollrock people as Scottish knock-offs. I have a really vague understanding of UK cultural identities outside of London or anywhere represented by the BBC. I remember reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration and being confused by the concept of a Geordie.

      I think Lanagan has worked out how to make phonetic accents tolerable, just by having one word spelled funny. The alternative is having a character’s dialogue written with their own special spelling and punctuation, and that’s how you get barely comprehensible characters like that Hagrid guy from Harry Potter. I had no idea what he was going on about half the time, or how he pronounced something “summat”. Really, there’s a lot about how Rowling handled that character that didn’t sit right with me.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Like

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