Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

brides of rollrock island

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

Released September 11, 2012.

Rollrock Island is remote and isolated with only one ferry connecting it to the mainland.  It is also a place of magic, magic that is less sparkles and fairy dust and more ocean currents, sealskin and lust.  It is where Misskaella the witch lives, a woman able to peel away the skins of seals and gather their energies together into a woman who is beautiful and biddable.  In this way, Misskaella takes vengeance upon the women of the town who never accepted her.   She charges the men for the honor of having a wife from the sea, taking not only the money they have gathered now, but future wages as well.  These men are just as dazzled and tamed by the magic as their once-seal wives.  The desperation and quiet horror of the selkie story builds steadily as the book continues, leaving it to the next generation, the children of these unions, to see if they can resolve this, or not.

I have long disliked stories based on selkie myths, so I read this because of my love for Lanagan’s work.  But Lanagan gets at the nastiness of these relationships, the sandy dirtiness of them that will not wash away.  Her writing is by turns ethereal and wondering and then turns to the baseness and cruelty of what is happening.  There is a strong sense of place woven into the story.  It simply could not take place anywhere else.  From the seals at the base of the cliff to the tiny town that is simple yet enticing, Rollrock Island is unique and astounding yet also grindingly normal.

Lanagan plays with contrasts throughout the entire book.  The women who rise from the ocean are compliant yet wrenchingly miserable, longing for a world that they have lost.  The men are dazzled and yet absent.  The children beautiful, part sea and part land, yet also unable to see the truth until it is forced upon them.  It is as much Misskaella’s story as it is the selkies.  Their destinies intertwined thanks to her magic.

Told in a series of short stories that show the different points of view, though never the point of view of one of the selkie women, this book is pure richness and beauty.  Lanagan takes a timeless myth and exposes it, yet leaves the reader hopeful in the end.  This is a glorious read.  Appropriate for ages 15-18 and a great crossover read for adults.

Reviewed from digital copy via NetGalley.

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