Margo Lanagan – The Brides of Rollrock Island

After the incredible Tender Morsels I expected nothing less than brilliance from this novella (which was published under the title Sea Hearts in Australia and New Zealand). Maybe my expectations are at fault here, or maybe I feel a little cheated when I buy a novella that turns out to be a few short stories, strung together by a common setting. Either way, what I thought would be a highlight, left me with the lukewarm feeling of “meh”.

brides of rollock islandTHE BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND
by Margo Lanagan

Published by: David Fickling Books, 2012
ISBN: 9780857560339
Hardcover: 320 pages

My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: “The old witch is there,” said Raditch, peering over the top to Six-Mile Beach.

The Blurb: Rollrock island is a lonely rock of gulls and waves, blunt fishermen and their homely wives. Life is hard for the families who must wring a poor living from the stormy seas. But Rollrock is also a place of magic – the scary, salty-real sort of magic that changes lives forever. Down on the windswept beach, where the seals lie in herds, the outcast sea witch Misskaella casts her spells – and brings forth girls from the sea – girls with long, pale limbs and faces of haunting innocence and loveliness – the most enchantingly lovely girls the fishermen of Rollrock have ever seen.
But magic always has its price. A fisherman may have and hold a sea bride, and tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into those wide, questioning, liquid eyes, he will be just as transformed as she is. He will be equally ensnared. And in the end the witch will always have her payment.

divider1The thing about discovering a new author is that after that fantastic first book, expectations are high and disappointement is almost pre-programmed. I wasn’t worried about my second Lanagan because I loved her style and the synopsis – selkie wives, forced to marry human men and live on land, always yearning for the sea – sounded brilliant. Unfortunately, the novel never rises above the level of its synopsis and I had great trouble with the characters that were the main point of focus.

This novella is split into several parts, each from the perspective of a different person who is somehow connected to, or living on, Rollrock Island. While the prologue left me pretty bored, once Misskaella’s story started, I was hooked. This poor girl, growing up as the only ugly and chubby daughter in a family of conceited, vain girls, struggles enough as it is. As it turns out, she feels magically drawn to the seals on the beach which makes her even more of an outcast. She is the heart of this book because without her, bringing the sea wives out of the ocean wouldn’t have been that easy for the men of Rollrock.

And here was a wonder, that a man so well-conformed himself should be so eager to embrace what I had always been told was a poorly made body, laughable, even disgusting. But I delighted in him; he travelled my curves, weighed me in his hands, pressed me and gasped with me as I yielded. Open-faced he looked into me, his eyes empty of the scorn I was used to seeing, in women’s faces as well as men’s.

The following segments of the book, while well-written, made me lose interest again. I had hoped for a chapter from one of the selkie’s point of view which, alas, never happens. Instead, we focus on the boys and men of the island, first the generation that starts bringing their wives up from the sea instead of doing it the normal way, then the generation of their sons. There are so many great ideas hidden behind really boring plot. For example, none of the Rollrock families – now consisting exclusively of human men with selkie wives – have any daughters. Misskaella is still around and has taken on an apprentice, a relationship that I found most intriguing but that I never got to explore fully because we only know about it from a young boy’s point of view who tries to stay away from them.

sea hartsThe only time where there was any suspense was Daniel Mallett’s chapter, which also brings a sort of conclusion to the dark dealings on this island. However, that conclusion is painfully predictable! The whole book left me with a sense of “so… that’s it?” – where’s all the magic, where is the mythology? Other than knowing there are selkies living as married women on Rollrock Island and wanting to go back to the sea (because they’re selkies, that’s what they do), it was mostly men contemplating their lives, being afraid of Misskaella and wanting to keep their wives/mothers at any cost.

Of course the issues discussed here make up for any lack of action – men who prefer the quiet, cold, but beautiful and compliant sea wives to real women of flesh and blood, that’s just not right, is it? But what about these sea wives’s sons? Is it wrong for them to love their mothers and want to keep them from returning to the sea? The book itself doesn’t give the answers to these questions, it merely shows how different characters feel about the issue and lets the reader decide – a point I cannot praise enough in a YA novel.

The disjointed nature of this book, which may as well be called a collection of short stories set in the same place, made it hard for me to truly connect with any of the characters, most of all the sea wives. I am not saying the book is bad, and numerous awards (and more nominations) will confirm that, I was displeased with it because of personal taste. The jumping perspectives did do a great job of showing Rollrock society from different angles, illuminating one household or one group of friends at a time. I can’t reproach the book for lack of atmosphere either because, repressing as it may be, Rollrock did come to life on these pages. I only wish more, and different, characters had come to life with it.

THE GOOD: A well-written story of a small island town whose men do something atrocious and must come to terms with it. Misskaella is a great character (and would have deserved her own novel, in my opinion), the idea of the sea weed blankets appealed to me, and the very end offered a bittersweet surprise.
THE BAD: Because each protagonist gets only a short segment to tell their story, I had trouble caring about them. If I could choose, the focus would have been on the selkies, the human women on Rollrock, or Misskaella.
THE VERDICT: A good book with great ideas that didn’t appeal to me because I wanted something different. That’s not the book’s or the writer’s fault, of course, and I will continue to read Margo Lanagan. She has a brilliant mind and writes beautiful prose. This one just wasn’t for me.

RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

(I feel the need to point out – as I did on my ratings page – that this rating does not reflect the quality of the book (as if that’s possible – even by professional critics) but my own enjoyment of it. I adore Margo Lanagan and wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading her books.)

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