On remote Rollrock Island, men go to sea to make their livings—and to catch their wives. The witch Misskaella knows the way of drawing a girl from the heart of a seal, of luring the beauty out of the beast. And for a price a man may buy himself a lovely sea-wife. He may have and hold and keep her. And he will 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. He will be equally ensnared. And the witch will have her true payment.
Margo Lanagan weaves an extraordinary tale of desire, despair, and transformation. With devastatingly beautiful prose, she reveals characters capable of unspeakable cruelty, but also unspoken love.
Tell Me More: No single story in sea mythology has fascinated me as deeply as that of the selkie. Ireland is rife with tales of seal women emerging from the waves and ensnaring the hearts of men for centuries, but make no mistake: there are almost never any happy endings. The selkie woman is an unpredictable creature, and it is only through deception that a man can keep her. If she finds her skin, she will return to the sea without another thought for the man or any children she might have. Margo Lanagan takes these legends and breathes life into them in the stunning Brides of Rollrock Island.
Each of the stories in this book is peculiar, and the average YA reader may not find it easy to follow the weaving writing styles that Lanagan employs. If you want to know more about the titular brides, you have to work for every observation, every tiny bubble of information scattered throughout the various conversations in each chapter. It will be frustrating, and I would not be surprised if readers gave up and just tried to read the last chapter to figure everything out. But if they stick with it? A tale unlike any other will reward them for their patience and trust in Lanagan’s ability.
The novel opens with a a group of boys observing the “witch” Misskaella along the seashore. It’s not clear if they really think she has supernatural powers or if they are simply repeating town gossip. Within the first few paragraphs, Lanagan sets up an “us-versus-them” mentality among the island’s inhabitants, but the reader is never pressured into choosing sides. Indeed, the novel relies on the use of varying perspectives to flesh out the entire story and allow the reader to make their own conclusions.
As I was familiar with the selkie stories of the Orkney Islands before reading this book, I didn’t have to do as much work to understand the hints Lanagan drops about Misskaella’s true nature. She isn’t the main focus of the story, but she does influence everything that happens, and I appreciated having such an unpredictable and intelligent female presence in the story.
It is the women who shine in Rollrock–they are far more dynamic and alive than the men. While on the surface, it seems as though the men of Rollrock are taking advantage of Misskaella and the selkies, the tables are turned very quickly. Every man grows to fear their wives’ return to the sea. Their young sons are torn between love for their ethereal mothers and respect for their fathers’ wishes. The Brides of Rollrock Island is a love letter to women in all forms, and it speaks to the myriad ways in which women are still overlooked in many parts of the world.
The Final Say: Margo Lanagan has written a fantastic, lush and utterly enchanting novel that deserves to be recognized alongside Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion.