Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

When Misskaella, a witch and outcast on Rollrock Island, learns that she has the power to coax beautiful women out of the seals who live on the beach below, she trades money with the men of Rollrock who leave their human wives in favor of these new, magical women that Misskaella calls from the sea. Lanagan draws on the selkie myth, mythological creatures from Irish, Scottish, and Icelandic folklore, seals who shed their skin on land and walk as humans, their seal coats discarded and hidden until their return to the sea.

Misskaella’s work is one part experimenting with her new magic, and one part vengeance against the women of Rollrock, who have consistently made her feel different, and as if she doesn’t belong:

Was she beautiful, the sea maid? Fair strange, Doris had said, and I thought that was a fine assessment. Her hair was neat dark wings at either side of her face; her eyebrows were drawn clear-edged against skin that bore not a freckle or fleck. The girl’s eyes were wide and dark; her hands were long, the fingers slender and longer than the palms. Any man seeing this maiden’s lips would want to lay kisses on them; he would want to roll in the cushions of those lips, swim the depths of those eyes, run his hands down the long foreign lengths of this girl. Oh, I thought, women of Rollrock, you are nothing now.

The Brides of Rollrock Island moves between several perspectives of the inhabitants of Rollrock Island, shifting time periods: before the women came from the sea, while they inhabit the island, and when they leave again. The stories span over three generations of Rollrock men, and although there are female perspectives included, Lanagan’s book has the feel of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, a novel about a five sisters but narrated by the men that were in their lives. The selkie women are not given a voice in this novel; none of the many women who Misskaella makes cast away their seal coats directly narrate this novel. Instead, their husbands and sons (there are no daughters of selkies and human men who live on the island) cast them in a brilliant and otherworldly light, and forget the human women who once inhabited Rollrock Island, but left when their husbands chose the selkie women instead of their human wives.

Lanagan’s writing is as weird, wild, and beautiful here as it is in Tender Morsels and her short story collections. Her descriptions of the seals lying down by the ocean are continuously reimagined, so that at one point “the seals lay like bobbins in a drawer, grays and silvers, fawns and browns, some mottled, others smoothly one-colored tip to tip. The babies, very brown, were all movement and enterprise among the lounging mothers”; yet they are later “the many silken bodies lying ashore like poor-piled bolsters, sandbags, jelly bags”; and near the end of the book they are “moving about us like monstrous dark maggots, helpless, harmless, huge.”

Misskaella, the witch, is both described by other characters in the novel and given a section to narrate herself, allowing the reader to judge her for the change she has brought over the island (if the reader can cast judgment, after reading her narrative). She is one of many siblings in her family, the very youngest, and she goes around the town with pieces of cloth crossing her body, keeping her magic safe, secured, and unused. She is always an outsider on Rollrock Island, from a young girl to a young woman, learning the extent of what her seal magic can do. Still, her own understanding of herself is at times painful to read, as she insists, “For a long time I seemed to be everyone’s but my own; 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.”

Finally, Lanagan writes careful detail and exactness into her depictions of women (and men) shedding their sealskin. Her writing is at its best in these descriptions,both mechanical and practical, imaginative and magical. The Brides of Rollrock Island presents a compelling retelling of selkie mythology, introducing a world of characters to narrate the coming of women from the sea. Each perspective and detail is necessary to the story, and reader investment is pushed to the limit during a particularly high stakes section near the end of the novel. Lanagan’s writing should never be missed, and The Brides of Rollrock Island is no exception.

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