Book: The Brides of Rollrock Island
Author: Margo Lanagan
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley
On Rollrock Island, there are no girls, and the women are beautiful, eerie, sad creatures.There's a good reason for that, as they're not women at all, but selkies, stolen from the sea to be the wives of the Rollrock men.
It wasn't always like this. Once there were human women, and human girls too, on Rollrock. Then the witch Misskaella conjured the first sea-wife from a seal-skin, and gradually all the human women left in protest as their men took passive, mysterious selkie wives instead. But the selkie women are not happy on land, even though they submit to their human husbands and take joy in their half-human sons. Will anybody ever have the courage to break the chains that bind them?
This book furnishes a lot to think about. Clearly it's saying a lot to a feminist viewpoint. The men pick a seal almost at random, the witch produces a girl from it, and they give her a name, put clothes on her, and take her home. There's no element of choice, and very little acknowledgement that this might be an undesirable situation for anybody. Yet the men know their wives have no real ties to their land-life, because they lock away the seal-skins that would allow the selkies to return to the sea that is their real home. It's easy to demonize them.
On the other hand, they're ensnared by the promise of easy love and the illusion of owning something mysterious and otherworldly. A selkie imprints on the man who takes her from the sea, totally trusting and dependent. As hideous as this is for the women, you can see how beguiling it is for the men. Human relationships are tricky, thorny things. How many of us would really (now be honest) turn down the promise of a spouse who loves and pledges to you at first sight?
Not to mention, this is a situation that feeds on itself like a snake eating its own tail. Girls born of the sea-wives can't survive on land, so they're given back to the sea (to be seals, not to drown, lest this be an even darker book). With the human women leaving in disgust and protest, this means that there is no option for a wife and family unless you turn to the witch and ask her for one. Within a generation, this becomes the way things are, and that's much harder to change than an individual outrage.
This is a book that doesn't really have one central character. You could rightly argue that the main character is the community of Potshead itself. It produced the scorned and spiteful Misskaella, who knows what she is doing to the community and keeps doing it anyway because it is her power and her revenge. Yet it also produces Daniel Mallett, the half-selkie boy who becomes aware of the monstrosity of the island tradition and vows to do something about it.
Like Lanagan's previous book, Tender Morsels, this book is full of complexities and terrible human emotions, and no easy answers anywhere. It won't be for everyone, but those who do pick it up and stick with it will find much to think about.