Author: Margo Lanagan
Publication Date: 9/11/12
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Blurb(GR): On remote Rollrock Island, men go to sea to make their livings—and to catch their wives.
The witch Misskaella knows the way of drawing a girl from the heart of a seal, of luring the beauty out of the beast. And for a price a man may buy himself a lovely sea-wife. He may have and hold and keep her. And he will 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. He will be equally ensnared. And the witch will have her true payment.
Margo Lanagan weaves an extraordinary tale of desire, despair, and transformation. With devastatingly beautiful prose, she reveals characters capable of unspeakable cruelty, but also unspoken love.
There’s no question in my mind that this book is brilliantly written. I’ve been consistently impressed and moved by Margo Lanagan’s prose since my first experience with her work a few years ago and this book does not disappoint in that regard. However, and this will actually be a positive for many readers – this book is far more tame and accessible than Tender Morsels. It’s even more accessible than the short story of hers that I read in Zombies vs. Unicorns last year. And that’s not to say that this book is all softness and happiness and rainbows – far from it. But compared to the other two works of hers that I’ve read, this one just isn’t as…traumatizing. As I said, this will actually be a positive for many readers. I would definitely suggest this book for anyone who wants to give Margo Lanagan a try without being overwhelmed. This is the book you should start with. However, as someone who loves her darker and more gruesome side, I actually really missed the shock factor that I’ve come to expect from her. I loved this book quite a lot, but I know that it won’t linger in my mind quite as much as Tender Morsels still does.*
This book is absolutely brilliant though, both in its poetic beauty and in its technical precision. She is one of the few authors I know of who seems to marry those two elements effortlessly. I appreciate both (although I think maybe I have a slight preference for poetic beauty over technical precision) but when I see them come together in one work of art, it never fails to leave me in awe. Not only does she seamlessly connect six different narrators, she tells this story in a sort of spiraling timeline. She starts in the middle, moves to the beginning, and then moves through the start to reach the end. In a less-skilled author’s hands, all of these narrators and the shifting timeline could easily become a huge mess. But she makes it feel absolutely perfect – like the only way this story could possibly be told.
I don’t typically enjoy reading through a whole cast of narrators, but Margo Lanagan makes me love it. Her stories are handed off from one pair of eyes to another, like a relay, and the result is an incredibly three-dimensional view. We get to see through the eyes of young Misskaella, a girl with a power that she doesn’t understand, but that seems to scare or disgust everyone on the small island where she lives. As she grows and even her family seems to wish she were never born, as her isolation and bitterness increase, it becomes easier to see why she would want to punish them all. From within the soft, blubbery bodies of female seals, she pulls forth girls: tall, pale, graceful, and biddable girls. Girls who seem to bewitch every single man on the island. Through the span of decades, she changes the entire face of the island, effectively removing it from the modern world and isolating everyone who chooses to stay. The torch of narration is passed through the wives and children of these men, who are cast aside; to the men themselves, who are hopelessly lost to the selkie brides; to the children born of these new marriages; and finally back into Misskaella’s life through the eyes of her apprentice.
I fell so hard into each one of these different characters that it was sometimes hard to move on. But it was exciting too – like having my firmly held beliefs proven wrong over and over again. (Am I the only one who really enjoys that?) The only small gripe I have is that I wish she had included a selkie bride as one of the narrators. It sort of happens with Daniel Mallett, the son of one of these women, but not completely. I really wonder why she chose not to include that point of view.
Her writing is just absolutely stunning though. For example – this passage, which is about giving up a child for his own well-being:
“All the years to come crowded into that time, and I lived them, long and bitter and empty of him. The rightness of what I had done, and the wrongness both, they tore at me, and repaired me, and tore again, and neither of them was bearable.”
I have never gone through that courageous and painful act, but she made me feel as if I had.
Perfect Musical Pairing
The Cranberries – Dreaming My Dreams