The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan. Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.
The Plot: Misskaella Prout is the witch of Rollrock Island, so ugly and disagreeable and witchy that no man would have her for a wife.
Misskaella has her revenge on those who keep her at arm’s length: she uses her magic to bring the person out of a seal, creating human seal-wives for the men of Rollrock Island.
The price the men pay is high; it makes Misskaella rich. But the price they are about to pay is even higher.
The Good: So, here’s the thing. I’m going to talk about this book as if you’re already read it.
If you haven’t, take a look at Jennifer Hubert Swan‘s post at Reading Rants. I’ll add this is a beautifully poetic examination of the selkie legend, based around the lifetime of one woman, Misskaella. It is told from many viewpoints over several generations, spanning Misskaella’s life, and Misskaella is just one of the narrators. Why is this young adult? It could easily be adult, and is a cross over book for adult readers; but the primary narratives and the times they cover are when the speakers are teens (or, based on what they say, appear to be teens. Lanagan, as you may know, is not the type to say “as I looked into the mirror at my brown eyes on my fourteenth birthday…”)
Now, it’s not so much that there will be spoilers, of course, but rather, this is the type of post where not reading the book means you won’t understand as much.
I read The Brides of Rollrock Island within a certain current events context: in the news was Stuebenville. Delhi. This article, Body Double Standard. People holding signs saying, don’t teach people how not to be raped but teach people not to rape. So here comes this book, about seals who are turned into beautiful women, who are then taken to be wives, and their ability to leave by returning to being a seal forbidden them by taking and hiding their coats.
How are the seals turned into women? Some can shed their seal coat and become human on their own; when they want to return to seal form, they put on their coat. Legends tell how the men who come across these women will hide the seal coats. In Brides, sometimes a person like Misskaella has the magic to “see” the person in the seal and transform them. The coat is hidden and locked away from the first moment. Misskaella’s ability is attributed to Misskaella’s father’s family having seal-wives in the past, making this a genetic gift. Interesting, because the seal-wives are repeatedly said to be beautiful and all that a man wants in a wife, while Misskaella herself is not beautiful and nobody wants her. Her seal-wife heritage is a negative, until a man wants a seal-wife of his own.
Misskaella begins making seal-wives for the men who pay her as revenge against her fellow islanders, the women for excluding and being non-supportive, the men for not wanting her. If she cannot have home and hearth and family the “traditional” way, she’ll earn it by selling her services and having her own house. If she cannot have family, she’ll “take” the husbands of the married women who pity her by creating seal-wives. And the biggest curse is for the men, by giving them what they think they want.
As I read this, I thought how damning this was towards the men of Rollrock Island. Given the narrative structure, I’m not sure if any man left Rollrock Island; women did, whose husbands and sons took seal-wives, taking their children with them. And in the narrative, at least one man resisted having a seal-wife, married a human wife, and took her back to Rollrock Island. Also, later, another witch is brought to the island, to help an aging Misskaella, and this witch’s offspring show that some men of the Island still want a human woman sexually.
Why damning of the men? Because what they want is not just a beautiful woman. They want a woman who is a blank-slate doll come to life, who will not be assertive or lose their temper or be cross or talk back or be anything other than an adoring wife. Take Dominic Mallett, someone who has a human fiancee but “accidentally” winds up with a seal-wife, the way people “accidentally” have affairs. Here are the words he uses to describe his seal-wife and then his human fiance, Kitty.
The seal-wife: “no one, no woman or man, had ever regarded me so steadily, so trustingly; “his girl only waited, her whole being, her whole future, fixed on me”; “this purer creature, unsullied yet, uninjured by the world;” “she put me at peace in a glance.” Note how it is all about how she makes him feel. Or is it? How can the seal-wife “make” another feel something? There is no magic; not everyone reacts to the seal-humans the same way. At least one man takes and keeps a human wife; and, at least one woman takes a seal-man lover yet doesn’t keep his coat, so that the seal can return to his seal identity at the time of his own choosing.
No — as Kitty says to Dominic, it’s his choices. His decisions. It’s not fault of the seal-women, or of Misskaella, it’s the fault of the men who want that “peace in a glance” rather than the humanness of a woman.
Kitty: “I could see how Kitty would be as an old woman, with this roundedness gone from her face, with this bitter tightness about her mouth.” “I could see how she would have scolded her children, the thin line of her lips.” Apparently, a seal-wife is never bitter. A seal-wife never scolds. Rather, a seal-wife kept from her coat is, at worst, depressed and moody and takes to bed every now and then but is not bitter.
This goes on for a few generations, spanning Misskaella’s life, so there both mothers and grandmothers who are seal-wives. In the second generation — just long enough for the boys to know no other life or other women — the sons of the seal-wives realize the distress of their mothers and conspire to return their coats. (Apparently, an offspring of a seal-human that is the same sex cannot live on land, so seal-wives have only land-sons). Why didn’t the earlier generation do this? I’m not sure; I think it has to do with the changes going on and taking time; and it could be that the first-generation of seal-wives were less depressed than the later ones, because they may have still had hope, they may not have realized their captivity would go on forever.
A fascinating discussion on Brides is going on at Someday My Printz Will Come. I also strongly suggest reading Aisha’s critique at Practically Marzipan. Part of the reason I like Aisha’s post is she calls the treatment of the seal-wives rape, and yes, that is what I see, also. And to bring it back to the various news stories I’ve been reading, I think it lessens what the men have done by calling the women “seductive” or some such wording. The women did not want or ask for this; not a single woman elected to stay with her husband once the coats are stolen back. To say someone is naturally seductive in this setting, doesn’t it lessen, then, what is inflicted upon them? Implying somehow that if the skirt was longer, if they weren’t so darn seductive, they wouldn’t have been kept?
I have complicated feelings about Misskaella. Yes, she is basically procuring women to be owned and used by men which means she treats those women as much as objects and things as the men do. How the women are portrayed is vague; for the various voices telling this story, not one is the voice of a seal-wife. Still, given the continuing ostracism she felt from her community, the dismissal, I admit it — I felt sorry for her. I pitied her. I understood her desire for revenge.
So how do I really feel? Reader, I adored this book. I’ve read it twice through, and reread individual sections several times more than that. Of course it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.
I’ve mentioned a few other reviews of this already. I’ll also point out to Mark Flowers’s post Crossreferencing; as well as this interview with Lanagan at Booklist.