Friday, January 4, 2013

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels is a book by this same author that a lot of people really loved and a couple of years ago I tried to read it and it just ended up not really working for me. I sort of blame it on the pressures of it being a library book (I had a brief experimentation phase where I tried to use the library as an adult) and I think I was moving at the time and also it's kind of fantasy (a fairy tale retelling) It doesn't have anything to do with the book, you know, it was me.

But when Ana reviewed The Brides of Rollrock Island I have to admit it sounded really fascinating and I thought I should give the author another chance. It seemed to explore some ideas about image that are interesting to me and I'd never heard of selkie (sorrrrry everyone I just don't have a good myth education, I guess!) and they sounded cool. I actually started reading it awhile ago, but was reading like a hundred different things so I set it aside. But then when I read The Scorpio Races it made me want to pick it up again really badly because of the island setting, so I did!

To be honest, Ana's review is SO GOOD it's sort of like why even bother writing one of my own? But alas this is how I remember books, so here goes.

In case you're like me and don't know what selkie are, they are women (and well I guess men, too) that come from seals. When in human form, though, they are always wanting to go back to the sea (so they are the opposite of The Little Mermaid). And if they have their coat they can, so the people who want to keep them on land will hide their coat to keep them.

What I liked about this book, though, was that it told a very complete story by telling it over time and through the voices of many different parties involved. At the beginning of the book, you get the sense that whatever is about to happen has unfolded before because when Misskaella, the first character we meet, discovers she has this special gift of communicating with the seals, the elderly people are legitimately frightened of her gift. But they die off before what comes to pass really happens. Anyway what happens is that Misskaella eventually gets to a point where she's willing to pull a woman out of a seal for a very high price from a man. The men like these women because they look a certain way and seem submissive and interested in living to please their men. Of course, they have their own inner lives and longings and desires, but that doesn't really register with the men because of the image the selkie women create. Basically the men fall in love with this image that somehow aligns with what they think the ideal woman is without really loving the woman herself.

As you can imagine, this causes all sorts of complications in the town for the other women living there and the book continues to depict the passage of time through the viewpoints of various characters as eventually there are really no "red-headed women" left and only selkie women remain.

One of the things that's interesting about the book is the way, as I've mentioned, the men fall in love with this image of the selkie women, in believing she's this beautiful woman that exists to please him basically. And even while this isn't true, they so believe in their right to have it they are willing to go in debt for years to get their wives who are basically slaves. Their seal coats are locked up away out of sight and they really have no choice in that matter. When their husband pulls them out of the sea, he chooses their name, and they all wear the same wedding dress. But they do start longing for the sea more and more and suffer from severe depression. The entire island basically becomes a really sad place. But the allure of this is so strong, one character leaves the island, is raised by a mother who is not selkie, and yet upon return to the island for a few days falls under the spell of them.

And it just really made me think a lot. I mean obviously this book is focused on gender, the only selkie men who come up from the sea are never forced to stay on land, really, but more than that, it made me think about how much more willing we are to engage with the idea of a person than the person themselves, how hard it is to know someone and all the ways we try to hide from that. And in so doing we enslave each other (and ourselves) and cause a lot of suffering and pain. Because we are real and each one as real as the next. Trying to live with that conflict--both in ourselves and with one another is part of what life and love is about.

There was one small part I'm unsure of how I feel about, but it doesn't really detract from overall how wonderful this book is. It's such an amazing compulsive read, I didn't want to put it down, and it's rich and thought provoking.

Also! The island setting is really great and brought vividly to life. I think I may have struggled a little in the beginning to get along with the rhythm of the language, but I soon got right into it and loved it.

Sometimes it's hard for me to know right away whether or not a book will stay with me, but I think this one will. The story is just so unique and fascinating and I keep wanting to talk about it. I really do recommend it!


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