"The old witch is there," said Raditch, peering over the top to Six-Mile Beach.
–Margo Lanagan - The brides of Rollrock Island - c.2012 - pg.2
Also published as Sea-Hearts
Misskaella isn’t as pretty and slim as her sisters, but as she grows she discovers that she has a power. She has an answer to their endless teasing, mean and spite-filled ways. She can call a person out of a seal. And by creating seal-wives for the men of the island she can grow rich. And she can have power over those who snarked and commented about her when she was younger.
But the wives, the mams that she calls out, they aren’t happy. They aren’t content, and if they ever find their seal skins they will take them and leave their husbands. Husbands who are as bespelled as their wives, even if they don’t really know it.There is a lot to admire in this book. It is easy to empathise with the characters, even as you disagree with their actions. Misskaella starts out as a bullied girl from a miserable home. Her parents unhappy marriage has soured the whole family, and Misskaella’s resemblance to old ancestors, her shape and her colouring, causes her to be the one that everyone in the Prout family picks on. As a reader I really felt for her, you so want something to happen to her that’ll change that. What happens is that she realises she can make everyone as miserable as she is. The men who come to her think they are getting what they want. They believe that the beautiful seal-woman that comes up out of the ocean will be theirs to command and own. But once they see her they fall under her spell just as much as she is under a spell, and so they both end up miserable. Because, as everyone knows, a selkie always yearns for their life in the sea back. It is where they came from, it is where they belong. On land, as humans, they are unhappy and depressed.
And the misery doesn’t seem to help Misskaella at all. She still rages, she still hates.
To be honest I found the whole idea of the seal-women and their passivity to be quite eerie. When one of the narrators, Dominic Mallet first looks into his new seal-wife’s eyes he is amazed by how trusting and open she is.
She watched me soberly, fearless, unsmiling; she could no more look away than I could. No one, no woman or man, had ever regarded me so steadily, so trustingly. Kitty herself never looked at me this way; always her own next purposes and plans moved somewhere in her eyes and readied words behind her lips. This girl only waited, her whole being, her whole future, fixed on me.
To me, that is scary. Somebody who wants that in their “love interest” doesn’t want a partner. Doesn’t want a person at all, they want a real doll that they can play with. And that idea is horrific.
But of course that isn’t true of Dominic’s sea-wife at all. His “Neme” does want something, she wants to return to her life. Only to really acknowledge that fact would force Dominic, and all the men of Rollrock Island, to look at what they are doing. To see that they are, in essence, taking these women as prisoners, as slaves, and raping them and forcing them to bear them children. And that is even more horrific.
I think that is why I didn’t love this book. So much about it felt wrong. It made me uneasy. So I like, and admire this book, and I think it one that I will return to, and think about. And it is wonderfully written. I just can’t say that I loved it.