The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
Rollrock island is a lonely rock of gulls and waves, blunt fishermen and their homely wives. Life is hard for the families who must wring a poor living from the stormy seas. But Rollrock is also a place of magic – the scary, salty-real sort of magic that changes lives forever. Down on the windswept beach, where the seals lie in herds, the outcast sea witch Misskaella casts her spells – and brings forth girls from the sea – girls with long, pale limbs and faces of haunting innocence and loveliness – the most enchantingly lovely girls the fishermen of Rollrock have ever seen.
But magic always has its price. A fisherman may have and hold a sea bride, and 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 is. He will be equally ensnared. And in the end the witch will always have her payment.
Margo Lanagan has always been an author I’ve wanted to read, but for some reason, just never got around to, as sad as it may be to say! I even have one of her short story collections – Black Juice – at home to read, but I just seem to be so busy reading new releases, that the older books get forgotten. If you’re a blogger then I’m sure you have the same problem too! So when I heard Lanagan was releasing a new book, I decided straight away to buy it and read her work at last. I had so many expectations for this book, and for Lanagan as a writer, and it’s always sad when the real thing doesn’t quite match up. But I had no such worry with this one. I fell in love with The Brides of Rollrock Island from the very first page, and have continued to love it long after the final page.
Based on the legends of the selkies, a mythological creature said to live as seals in the sea, but who can shed their skin to become human on land, The Brides of Rollrock Island is an absolute feast for your imagination. From the very first page I was completely taken with Lanagan’s beautiful, lyrical, and haunting prose. I felt as though I were there, living on this island with these men and women who became entranced by the seals living on their shores. I could hear the waves crashing, the seagulls squalling, and smell the salt in the air. The novel is split up into different character’s viewpoints. We are never given any kind of timescale for when these events are taking place, or even where this island is. At first it bothered me, not knowing what time period I was stepping into, but I soon realised that it just didn’t matter. These myths and legends are timeless, so why shouldn’t the story be?
The main character is Misskaella. From the opening scene we know that she is the one – the witch who can cast spells to bring the humans out of the seals bodies. The inhabitants of the island are terrified of her and her power. They know that she has complete control over their lives – she can choose to make these men happy forever, or to take it away on a whim and make them miserable until the end of their days. But when we get a look into Misskaella’s viewpoint, we get a glimpse of her childhood, of her growing into an adult, and of the truly troubled life she led. She was always seen as an outsider to the rest of her family, especially among her siblings. It doesn’t take long for Misskaella to realise that she has abilities that no other possesses. She stirs something inside the seals, awakens something in them that has been dormant for so long. Her family are mortified and long for her to be normal, to take a husband and move out of the family home. But no one will have Misskaella. I don’t want to give too much away here, as this glimpse into her life really is the backbone of the entire novel. It was my favourite part to read, and incredible to watch her turn from this lonely, heartbroken woman, to a fearful witch that has held a grudge against the island and its inhabitants for most of her life, resulting in terrible consequences.
When Misskaella realises she can control the lives of the men around her, the same men who teased her since childhood, by entrancing them with the beauty of a selkie, the whole island is changed forever. The beautiful women that come out of the seal’s are each taken as wives by the men, so captivated by their beauty are they, that they cannot see the harm in it. The original women of the island are unwanted and replaced. When it came to actually seeing the seals transform into humans, I wondered how Lanagan would write it in such a way that it didn’t sound ridiculously silly. But she pulls it off with the natural beauty only her prose can create. You can’t help but feel for these women who are pulled out of the sea, out of the skin they have always known, into the lives of men they have never met, whose name they can hardly pronounce. As time goes by, the women long for the sea again, and become utterly miserable. But how can they ever go back, when the men their lives have been entrusted with have stolen their seal skins and locked them away?
I know I’ve used this word a lot here, but there really is so much beauty in this novel. It is everything I wanted it to be and more. This novel was in fact originally written and published as a short story titled Sea-Hearts, and I can’t imagine the process Lanagan must have gone through to expand it into a novel. I fear it may have been much harder than she has made it look! I know several reviews have said it may have been better as a short story, and even though I haven’t read it, I have to disagree. I think this works wonderfully as a novel. I really enjoyed the way it switched viewpoints and that you got to see the scenario from every side. And even though Misskaella is full of hatred for these men and women, and has caused so much pain and heartache for the island as a whole, I still can’t help but feel for this woman who had such a sad and lonely life. The last few pages completely broke my heart, as the truth surfaced and became known.
Although this novel is categorised as teenage, and it is completely safe for teens to read, I really wish an adult edition had been printed as well. The UK cover is extremely young adult, and I fear that some adults who I know will love it, will be put off by the cover. So whatever age you are, and whether you’re male or female, please read this novel. It will definitely be a contender for my favourite book of the year, and I want to share it with as many people as possible! The Brides of Rollrock Island is a novel that deserves to be read, loved and cherished, and then read again. I’ve definitely learnt my lesson and now know never to delay in reading a novel by Margo Lanagan ever again.
The Brides of Rollrock Island is out now, published by David Fickling Books, an imprint of Random House.
- The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Margo Lanagan, author of Sea Hearts, answers Ten Terrifying Questions (booktopia.com.au)