The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan.
The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan. Ember (2013), Paperback, 320 pages.
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS
A magical book about a woman who is able to transform seals into beautiful women and how the islanders coped with the results.
I was enchanted by this book. The language was a joy to read; lush and descriptive with a few strange words and syntax to remind a reader this was not our familiar world. Even the landscape appears magical. “Behind and around me the horizon shook in the upflying wind, as if the sea were on the point of bursting from its bowl, taking flight entirely.” But as with the sea-wives themselves, just under the beauty lurked a darker reality. The whole story was “horrid and beauteous,” like the song that called the women out of the seals. For me the most powerful element of this book was the ambiguity between good and evil that ran through it.
The Brides of Rollrock Island contains the accounts about the sea-wives told by different residents of the tiny island. The central character is Misskaella, the youngest of six children. She knew she was unattractive and different from her siblings and neighbors, harking back to a strange ancestor. Everyone in the village feared and harassed her, used her as a drudge. “I was like a broom or dishrag that anyone might pick up and use, and put aside without a thought when they were done with me.” Discovering her ability to interact with the seals changed her life. “Exultant, I watched as my life tore free like a kite from its string and flung itself up into the windstorm that was my future.” Her new joy demanded sacrifice, however, “The rightness of what I had done, and the wrongness both, they tore at me, and repaired me, and tore at me again, and neither of them was bearable.” Then a man paid her to bring him a seal bride. Needing to support herself and enjoying a touch of revenge, she did his bidding—and that of other men who desired the gentle, loving sea-wives she could give them. But there was a cost to be paid. The human women and their children fled the island. By the next generation, sons realized how unhappy their sea mothers were. (There were no daughters, because girl babies are returned to the sea.) They and their mothers conspired to ease the sorrow. For better and for worse.
Many speculative novels are about fierce battles between good and evil, but not this one. Here good and evil are intrinsically mixed. Early in the book, Misskaella is presented sympathetically, but she becomes the witch responsible for the changes that occur. She even pulls men into desiring the sea maids when they try to resist. In addition, the men are not just creatures of lust and greed. The sea maids offer the men simplicity and peace, continuity with life on the island. I doubt I could refuse one if offered.
More deeply this is a novel about the dark side of dreams, where we become obsessed with our own desires and hurt others. Lanagan reveals how easily we avoid admitting the cost of something we desire. As one of the sons realizes, you can’t relieve the pain of some people without hurting others. Some of the characters, however, find ways to move on in an imperfect world. Even Misskaella has had her moments of joy.
Margo Lanagan is an Australian author, born and raised there. She has traveled globally working in a variety of jobs and developing her writing skills. She returned to Australia in 1988 where she has written speculative fiction, often for children and young adults. The Brides of Rollrock Island is marketed for young adult readers. Maybe. They would certainly recognize the conflicts in the book, but may lack the experience to deal with its ambiguity. I am certainly not young, and I loved it for its complexity.
I strongly recommend this book to all who are willing to surrender to the complicated magic. You might need to be in the right mood to enjoy it. If you are you may enjoy its sheer beauty.