Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island

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.



9 thoughts on “Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island

  1. This one blew me away – completely and utterly. (It’s going to be in my Feb column.) It was Dominic’s story that really hit me the hardest as he loves Kitty and yet tosses all that love aside in an instant when presented with the blank slate of a seal wife who will do whatever he wants (and claims he is bewitched and it is not his fault). As to Dominic’s son – my thought was that he was the ringleader – he was the one who spurred the other boys on to save their mothers. Also, there was the suicide of the one mother that all of them witnessed so maybe that was why they were more proactive than the previous generation.


  2. Thanks for directing us to the post at Practically Marzipan. I wonder what you and Aisha thought of the scene where Neme gives Dominic the shell to fortify him to resist Kitty? Neme says, “I fear you will stay and marry her as you said, simply because you are there and in sight of her.” What is Lanagan trying to get us to think, here? Neme is clearly protecting her relationship with this human. It felt out out of character to me, but so deliberate I’ve been puzzling over it since I read the book. I think that Lanagan wants us to believe that the seals will happily mate with the human they’ve bonded with, and are loving mothers, but always prefer to return to the sea (the life the bull-male presumably has with Missk). Thus, they’re in bondage, but it’s not exactly rape? (Isn’t that sentence a sort of oxymoron?) And Missk’s bull-male is the only one who is not raped because he’s free to return to the sea each time? But he didn’t choose to be transformed, either. It’s all very murky, and probably purposely so. There were moments when I had a problem reconciling the placid nature of the seal wives with their sometimes utter-competence or clarity of thought. I would have loved a chapter from Neme’s point of view. It’s probably not there, as Mark Flowers has pointed out to me, because the selkies don’t belong to our world–we’re not meant to understand them. But if you analyze their predicament as rape, the story demands the voice of the victim. Or does it? Rape victims are often silent and their pain goes unrecorded. Why does Neme give him the shell?


    1. the bull male at all times, as i recall, had access to his coat. and, interesting, missk never “named” him claiming ownership

      the shell: she’s a captive dependent on the person holding her captive. her coat has been taken; based on later on (men asking for one seal-wife to “share”), she has a legit fear that if he doesn’t come back she’ll be passed along to another(s). better the devil you know, so it’s better for her if he comes back than if he doesn’t — its not as if her coat is given back to her during this time. and its not as if she decides to stay once she has her coat.


      1. Yes, the bull male seems to return to the sea after every encounter, but he doesn’t (as far as we know) choose to become human–it is done to him. So there’s still a degree of imbalance in consent there, I think. It’s certainly on the continuum of this murky rape theme that Lanagan is exploring.

        I thought the islanders specifically decided not to have one wife for multiple men, for instance when they consider the prospect of Missk’s demise without an heir-witch, and during the economic downturn in the later generation. They’re too proprietary about their women to share when there aren’t enough to go around. Trudle is visited sexually by men who can’t afford a bride yet, for example. I don’t think there’s a single instance of a bride being passed on. And Neme is fresh from the sea at the point that she gives him the shell, so she’s certainly not privy to the island ways yet.

        No, I think it’s deliberately showing that when Neme is human, she in fact has an attachment to Dominic. The attachment doesn’t preclude a longing for the sea (which is stronger), and that’s another layer in the nuance of the question of “What is consent?” in this story.


      2. Elizabeth, I cannot rely directly to your comment. For the islanders, page 258 in my ARC: “neither would Misskaella bring up one single sea-maid, contributed for with pooled bits of money from low sorts in the town, with the idea that they would all use her, pass her from man to man.” So it didn’t happen per the text before they returned to sea, but after they returned to sea, it was asked. For Neme: I’m not sure what she does know about the island, but I’m sure that the seals, in their language, are aware in their own way that women are lost to the island and don’t return, and that infant girls are returned. Whatever Neme’s attachment to Daniel, I don’t see it equal or balanced as long as she doesn’t have her coat.


  3. I keep coming back to your comment about calling the seal-women seductive, and I am tired and sick and headachey so I am not making as much sense as I would like. But my first reaction was to say, “But that’s the way they’re shown in the text!” And that’s true: by never giving them a section in the story and showing them only through the men and women of Rollrock, Lanagan presents them as voiceless, almost without agency. They are shown as inherently seductive within the confines of the narrative. I noticed this and was troubled by it, wondering why Lanagan had chosen to create essentially the epitome of a certain kind of male fantasy. I’m wondering now if, taking your reading as correct, we are supposed to step outside the narrative and see that both the men and women of Rollrock are blaming the seal-wives and hiding their own desires and motivations. As I was reading the book, however, the strength of the story and the language were so convincing that I don’t think I ever would have reached that reading on my own…which does make me wish that the text itself had some clearer hints–one tiny section from the seal-wives, for example–which gave thicker readers a clue. I don’t know; I am still unsettled and not entirely happy with this book, though I love the different readings and discussions that have come out of it.


    1. I still think the lack of a clear answer is part of the strength of the book, but alas, no Printz love for it. I keep thinking of the seal women in terms of how the rape culture in Delhi (the women shouldn’t be out) or the recent NYT article on modesty patrols in religious neighborhoods (don’t wear those short skirts or you’re seducing men) and keep thinking the women are deliberately silent to concentrate on what others see them to be, and that is back to the others (men and women) rather then the seal women themselves.


  4. I’d just like to make a comment on Lanagan’s writing. I’m really not particularly interested in the selkie legend. I would never have picked up this book, if she hadn’t written it. I had some trouble getting into this book, finding Misskaella’s pov story a little drawn out. And still I thought this was a marvelous book. Recently I’ve read a couple of books that were written from a number of points of view and gave up on them because the writers couldn’t maintain a narrative drive doing that. There was no problem with this book.

    I did have a little trouble working out what was going on with the male selkie. Could he see past Misskella’s appearance? Was she using him as the men used the female selkies?

    I definitely thought there was something going on here relating to sexual desire and how the way the men used their women, but I never thought of it in terms of rape because the men were pretty miserable in this story, too. I think one character states something like that toward the end of the book. What was going on on that island was ugly and made no one happy for long.

    I also have to raise the question about why this is young adult. Even though the characters are narrating while young, what they do when they’re older is what’s significant.


    1. I think there was some using of the male-selkie, but since his coat never seemed to be taken, it doesn’t bother me to the degree it does what happens with the women. Why young adult? Good question — I was thinking because most of the stories are told while the main characters are young adults, with Misskaella’s choice to begin selling seal wives and Daniel’s to free them both taking place while they are teens or close to it.


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