The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
Once upon a time, I was just as anxious and stringent about genre classifications as the young woman who opined that our speculative fiction section wasn’t adequate to me. Of course, it’s plenty adequate—if you take into account the speculative fiction that’s in general fiction, lesbian fiction (what’s up, Heiresses of Russ?), gay fiction, and otherwise scattered throughout the store. I still think it’s important to call a spade a spade, but working at the book store has taught me that we put a book where it sells. It’s a business, people, albeit one that deals in products that are not wholly material.
And yet, seeing The Brides of Rollrock Island in young adult sci-fi and fantasy threw me for a loop. It’s been on my reading spreadsheet (which will soon grow legs and require nursing) since Ana reviewed it last year, and my impression was of quiet tragedy spread over generations. Surely, its rightful place was next to Connie Willis up in sci-fi/fantasy or otherwise the maddeningly “secret sf” up in general fiction? So I was surprised to learn that this novel has been framed for a young adult audience ever since its original publication in Australia as Sea Hearts. But it makes sense. If young adult fiction is inherently about change and first experiences, as Marie Rutkoski argues, then the story of Rollrock Island being changed down to its core by a witch’s actions?
On Rollrock Island, life is hard. Fishing is the only real means of supporting yourself, but there is one perk for the men who stick it out: the enchanting sea-wives provided by the witch Misskaella—for a price, of course. But Misskaella is not doing it entirely for money. The people of Rollrock Island wronged her in her youth, and she’s determined to watch them pay for it. From her youth to her death, several narrators tell the story of Rollrock Island and the supposedly passive selkies whose touch will be felt forever.
The first part of Misskaella’s story (which, after a short prologue introducing her as a fearsome hag who has the island in the palm of her hand) could read like a fairy tale—a young woman abused and exploited by her family is forced to hide her magical ability, which she uses to transform the king of the seals of Rollrock into a handsome prince. But the glimpse of happiness she has with the seal-king—both their night of passion and the offspring that results—only serves to remind her that she can’t escape the society she was born into. Already a fairly conservative Irish or Scottish island sometime in the early twentieth century) looks at women almost only as commodities. After all, the women are almost entirely dependent on their husbands for their livelihoods. It’s this desperation that makes Misskaella begin to bring the sea-wives in. With one stone, she can both stick it to the community that hates her for not being womanly enough and earn herself enough money to never need to rely on anyone else again.
Misskaella’s plan isn’t just aimed at men. Bringing in the sea-wives is a way of rendering all the women on Rollrock moot in the eyes of men. Not only are they unearthly beautiful, but they are utterly passive, a leftover of their lives as seals whose worries are relatively few. One of the more terrifying stories in the narrative is that of Dominic Mallett, who moves off the island as a young man, falls in love with a mainlander woman, but immediately takes a sea-wife when he returns home briefly to settle legal affairs. The men of The Brides of Rollrock Island not demonized, but tricked by the fact that they think they have a right to a woman’s entire soul (as pointed out in Ana’s brilliant review. I really could just point you there right now and end this one, but I’m too stubborn for that.) They fear change, the men of Rollrock—they fear challenge. Dominic Mallett comes back not only for a sea-wife, but also for a simpler way of life. The symbiotic, painful relationship between sea-wife and Rollrock man affects the Rollrock man as well. If you’re absorbed in your supernatural spouse and benefitting from her, what need do you have for challenging the system?
But, of course, these women—as all women are—are not theirs for the possessing. While Mallett might think otherwise, they have their own plans and aspirations, although they are difficult to communicate in bodies that are not their own, bodies that are literally assigned and constructed for them. (This might be a deeper commentary on the female body than I thought when I started this review.)
In her own roundabout and extremely cruel way, Misskaella is the one challenging the system, by overloading it until it breaks. If you want gorgeous and passive, Misskaella says, then I’ll give you gorgeous and passive. Of course, the sea-wives are not completely passive. Much of this image stems from their patience and endurance, allowing them to live through their lives on land although they’re certainly not thriving. (Tragically, a few sea-wives do crack towards the end of the novel.) The men are stuck with a toxic system, while the women of Rollrock, for the most part, move away and escape. It’s only Misskaella and Trudle, her apprentice, who remain on the island after all the other human women have gone. But there’s a great difference between Misskaella and Trudle. Misskaela can’t see beyond the cage she’s raging at; Trudle can, making ending the novel in her ends a perfect choice.
Bottom line: An intriguing look at the selkie myth through feminist lens. Well worth reading.
I rented this book from the public library.