Last year I was sent The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan for review – It was actually called Sea Hearts at the time which I thought made an intriguing title. One name change and award nomination later (Lanagan is nominated for Best Fantasy Novel at the British Fantasy Awards), I decided it was time to shake off the dust and revisit the novel.
“On Rollrock Island, that bleak rock of fishermen, the witch Misskaella knows how to draw a girl out of a seal. And, for a price, a man might buy such a girl for his bride. She will be his, kept from the sea, her seal coat safely hidden away. But he will be hers too, under the spell of her enchantment.
The tasks of freeing them will both fall to their children.”
The Brides of Rollrock Island is all folklore and fairytale. I have never read a story drawing from the myth of Selkie (seal women) and I found the story and Lanagan’s writing captivating which is why I’m delighted for her nomination.
Lanagan (already a four-time World Fantasy Award winner) writes a haunting folktale of the poor fishermen of Rollrock Island – An island unable to free themselves from the bittersweet magic of the Selkie. The witch, Misskaella (haunted by her own magic and misery) draws beautiful women out of their seal bodies by pinpointing and drawing out the stars of magic within the seals into their womanly shape. She bargains half the livelihoods of the hopeless Rollrock’s Fishermen who are completely bewitched. They will do anything to own a seal wife, much to the despair of Rollrock’s wives and women who cannot begin to compete.
What follows is a tragic tale that spans three generations on Rollrock; the original red haired women displaced by the dark mysterious beauties who make families on the island only to be unable to cope with their feet on the ground and away their true home, the sea.
Lanagan makes the heart ache all the more vivid by telling the tale from different perspectives; Miskaella Prout as a little girl, ridiculed and rejected for her affinity with the seals, Bet Winch whose father deserts his family to take a seal wife, Dominic Mallet who despite himself becomes bewitched with a seal women and Daniel Mallet his son who struggles to watch his mum yearn for the sea.
It is easy to see why this was originally an award-winning novella. Lanagan creates brilliant prose and is almost lyrical in ambience. It is a quiet story with huge emotion and it is hard to know who to feel more pity for; the lonely Misskaella, the bewitched fishermen, their rejected women, their land-trapped wives or the poor children – trapped between their parents two worlds.