The Brides of Rollrock Island
by Margo Lanagan
Publication Date: 9/11/12
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Acquired from NetGalley
I have two things to admit. Firstly, I don’t quite know how to review this book! How many times have you heard me say that? But it’s true! There is SO MUCH going on here, not in a bad way, it’s a good way, but there is so much to discuss!
Secondly, I went into The Brides of Rollrock Island with trepidation. Sure, I read, and loved Tender Morsels, last year, but it took me three (THREE!) tries to get into that book. I was vigilant! Determined! Too many of my reading buddies loved Tender Morsels for me to NOT love it too! And so, I conquered! Finally! Hoorah for me!!! But, that small, irritating voice in the back of my head asked, would it be that hard to get into her new book?
Thankfully, no. I had absolutely nothing to worry about.
On Rollrock Island, the men make their living from the sea. They are fishermen. They have always been fishermen. And their wives, while unremarkable, plain, and dull, were also steadfast and loyal. Until the witch was born. Misskaella, ugly, hateful Misskaella, has the power to draw the human out of a seal, and the men pay handsomely for their beautiful sea-wives. Long, dark, mesmerizing hair. Night dark, liquid eyes. Easy, trusting, sweet demeanors. Perfect as perfect can be. The price is dear, but the men are willing to pay it. The wives live on the island and bear them sons and watch the sea. They watch the sea with their quiet, questing eyes.
One son, out of all the sons, recognizes the aching in his mother’s soul. This boy loves his mother more than anything else in the world and he worries. He worries and he watches. He watches her like she watches the sea. Will his love for her lead him to help her back to the sea, or his father in keeping her there with them?
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Nothing with Margo Lanagan is simple. Her writing is beautiful. Her message hauntingly and lovingly rendered. And her characters. Oh, her characters. Misskaella. I loved Misskaella. She’s fascinating. From the beginning, she’s called fat, and ugly, and she takes it to heart. Once she discovers her talent with seals, she discovers her means for revenge. She takes a sort of malicious delight, but Lanagan’s skill is so great that, even as Misskaella is delighting in her exploits, you can also feel the pain under it all. She becomes the mean, ugly witch they take her for, but Lanagan left me wondering what Misskaella could have been, if she hadn’t been treated the way she was. As the stories unfold, telling the stories of different men and their seal wives and their sons, one comes to know Misskaella better as well. I’ll say it again, she’s fascinating. One of the most fascinating characters I’ve met in a long time.
Lanagan’s setting is like another character in the book. The island on which this all takes place is a barren place. I pictured rocky beaches, swollen, angry seas, overcast skies, yet starkly beautiful for all this. I was reminded of pictures of the Scottish coast. Using this setting to tell what is essentially a selkie story, a fairy tale where men steal the skins of seals to make them their wives, fitting.
Some of my favorite bits of writing:
We walked on, and everything was different, just as Jeannie had said-outlined in gold, things were, in the late sunshine, funnel- and mast-shadows crisply black on the sunlit storehouse walls. Every gull flew in a more purposeful arc, or arranged its folded wings more importantly; every stone and plank went toward making a different stage of life from the one that had passed on from us, moments before. “this is the day you tell your grandchildren about,” I said, and Kitty squeezed my hand.
During the time I lived in the sea, nothing happened in the sense that humans know happening. Seals do not sit about and tell, the way people do, and their lives are not eventful in the way that people’s are, lines of story combed out again and again, in the hope that they will yield more sense with every stroke. Seal life already makes perfect sense, and needs no explanation. At the approach of my man-mind, my seal life slips apart into glimpses and half memories: sunlight shafts into the green; the mirror roof crinkles above; the mams race ahead through the halls and cathedrals and along the high roads of the sea; boat bellies rock against the light, and men mumble and splash at their business above; the seal-men spin their big bodies by their delicate tails as lightly as land-lads spin wooden tops, shooting forward, upward, outward. Movement in the sea is very much like flying, through a green air flocking with tiny lives, and massier ones more slowly coasting by.
I felt freed to please myself, to find my way as I would, in a world that was much vaster than I had realized before, in which I was but one star-gleam, one wavelet, among multitudes. My happiness mattered not a whit more than the next person’s – or the next fish’s, or the next grass-blade’s! – and not a whit less.