Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

Misskaella, wronged by her family and those around her took her revenge on the island by tempting the men with sea wives: women she can draw from seals.  Now the only people on Rollrock Island are men, their sea wives, and their sons.  And the wives never stop wishing for the sea.

I found this story incredibly disturbing.  It was still an engaging story, but I was very disturbed.  The legend of selkies I always found upsetting: men stealing the seal skin of a women and hiding it so the women cannot return to the sea and then taking her for a wife.  It's really pretty awful.

The setting felt Irish to me, and selkies are often connected to Irish lore.  There was nothing that explicitly put it in Ireland, or our own world for that matter, but some of the slang used, and the constant reference to the native people having red hair caused me to picture Ireland as the backdrop for this story.

The story is told through seven narrators.  While there is some overlap, for the most part each narrator is a new generation on the island.  We learn that there used to be seal wives, but that was long ago and now families with that background are looked on strangely and it's something to be ashamed of.  Then Misskaella is born, and she's strange and different and not psychically attractive.  I felt a lot of sympathy for Misskaella, although I didn't like how she chose to have her revenge.  Misskaella was horribly treated by her own family and by the other women of the island.  She was never able to have a life of her own, constantly tied to someone else and told she should be grateful for it.  When Misskaella learns she can pull people from the bodies of seals, she has her revenge on all the women of the island: no man will want a regular women when he could have a beautiful, otherworldly sea wife.  All the other women will experience the rejection and humiliation Misskaella herself felt.

That's fairly dark as it is, but now we get to the even MORE disturbing part - the sea wives themselves.  Unlike in the traditional selkie stories, when a person is pulled from a seal, they instantly fall in love with the person they see.  Perhaps this was meant to cushion everything else in a "well, at least they're in love" kind of way, but it didn't make it any easier for me.  The women were such dolls.  Sweet, submissive, beautiful dolls. The men name them when they appear as women, and bring clothes to dress them in.  They have no identity of their own, it seems like they have no thoughts.  We never got any of the story from their perspective, so we never know what any of them were thinking.  We know that they fell in love with "their" man, but that they never stopped longing for the sea.  They suffered considerable depression because of this, some of them going so far as to commit suicide.  And they're kept primary it for sex, it seemed.  Many of the men in the first generation to take sea wives already had wives.  One man was hiding his sea wife, naked, in a closet.  Yikes.

As time goes on, it does seem like the men genuinely love their wives, although not enough to let them go back to the sea, even though they can clearly see how sad all the wives are.  And of course they have children.  But there are only boys on the island, because all the girl babies have to be sent back to the sea or else they'll die.  The sea wives love their children very much, but it is not enough to keep them from pinning terribly for the sea.

So.  Heavy.  Weird.  Disturbing.  If you're in to heavy, weird, disturbing kinds of reads, this is for you.  I can't really think of anything to compare it too.  Except for Tender Morsels, also by Margo Lanagan.  Margo Lanagan does not do light and fluffy.  It's not nearly as disturbing as Tender Morsels, though.

The Brides of Rollrock Island comes out September 11, 2012.

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