Book Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan

If you know your Scottish and Irish folklore, you might be familiar with selkies–seals who can shed their skins to become beautiful women on land. If someone steals their sealskin, the selkie is trapped in her human form and can be taken as wife, and even become a mother…but she will never stop searching for her skin, and when she finds it, she will return to the sea. With the current focus on revised fairytales in the literary world–vampires and werewolves and mermaids, oh my!–it’s almost surprising that the selkie myth hasn’t been tackled, until now, with Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island.


In the novel, the men of Rollrock Island are overcome with a desire for seal-wives–seals turned into beautiful, captive, captivating women by the witch Misskaella–at the expense of their human wives, their families, even their connection with the outside world. The impact of the seal-wives reverberates, changing life on the island–potentially forever.

I can’t quite believe that this novel is being marketed as YA. (Which I guess is an issue with me and that way in which I conceptualize of YA.) It’s an insightful, dark, unflinching look at the relationships between men and women, and parents and children, at sex, at the lies people are willing to live with in the pursuit of happiness. Many characters face tragic endings, even the children, and many of the conclusions drawn about love and family are somewhat bleak.

If it isn’t clear yet, I absolutely loved The Brides of Rollrock Island. Totally up my alley.

One of the novel’s strengths is that it is incredibly atmospheric. You really feel the isolation of the island, the claustrophobia of such a small and insular community, and the unrelentingly gray and cold climate. The fog fairly curls off the page. The only other book I’ve read that has so beautifully and completely described such a damp, inhospitable place is Marilynn Robinson’s Housekeeping, which I also loved. Lanagan sketches out such an elaborate picture of what life is like on Rollrock–with the island itself as practically another character–through small details like children gathering sea hearts for their seal-mothers to eat, that you can’t help but believe in it.

We follow seven different characters’ POVs, from Misskaella the witch to Daniel, the son of a seal-woman. Each character’s voice is distinct, and each one demands a different reaction from the reader, sometimes simultaneously: pity, contempt, understanding. Seeing Misskaella from both the perspective of a child and from her own perspective was incredible; I thought her POV chapter was one of the strongest of the novel, as circumstance and limited options for women turn a frightened young girl into a bitter, vengeful woman. I was especially enchanted by the description of the magic that makes turning seals into women possible–it’s hard to describe, except in the terms Misskaella herself uses:

Throughout each seal, what I had thought randomly scattered lights, each as bright as the other and all doing the same thing, were in fact different parts, in bud, of the human system. Solider, brighter buds lodged in the seal’s joints. Smaller, paler ones, perhaps for the fine skin and hairs, floated closer to the surface, out to the tips of the tail and flippers, and some even out along the seal whiskers…With a little more looking..I would have been how they all came together, the paths they must be drawn along if they were to assemble rightly into human form.

Something I would have LOVED would have been a seal-woman POV chapter, though I can appreciate why Lanagan denied us that: the seal-women remain as inscrutable and alien to the reader as they do to the humans who love them. And we are still able to understand how powerless they are, in a remote society that cherishes them for their beauty but denies them the comfort of their culture and their own kind.

Lanagan has a lot of important things to say, and a beautifully lyrical way of saying them. Tender Morsels has been on my TBR list for a long time, but I think having read this is what will finally motivate me to request her previous work from the library. I can only hope it lives up to the dark, quiet, powerful promise of Rollrock.

The Brides of Rollrock Island will be released September 11, 2012. I received my copy free for review from the publisher, Random House Children’s Books, through NetGalley.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four and a half out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Let us take these coats, by force or by trickery, from their rightful owners, Rollrock men had decided, and forever keep them apart.”
Other Reviews: The Readventurer, things mean a lot, The Reclusive Reader, Publishers Weekly

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