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Book Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” — Stephen King

I’ve read a lot of books in my life. I’ve been reading independently since I was four, and reading genre fiction for as long as I can remember; however, because I didn’t grow up in an uber-nerdy household, most of my genre books were fairly haphazardly chosen, and when it comes to the genre canon for grown-ups, I increasingly feel hopelessly undereducated. So, as part of my efforts toward authorial professionalization, and to show my support for Stephen King’s philosophy above, I decided that one of my projects this year would be to read more consciously. I made a list of Hugo and World Fantasy Award winners; I polled people on their favorite classic genre authors; I considered names I had heard whose books I’d never investigated. And I went to the local used bookstore and blew a big pile of store credit in their used section.

So now I’ve got a stack of books to go through, and I thought this spot was as good a place as any to share the results of that process. And, of course, to no one’s surprise, the first book I’m reviewing in this process is one I just picked off the top of another blog.

The book is The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan, and I first encountered it on Aarti’s BookLust. If you haven’t run across her yet, do check her out — she’s a fabulous review blogger who features a fair bit of genre fiction, as well as making a special effort to read genre fiction by POCs.

Lanagan is Australian, and according to Wikipedia and her own blog, she writes short stories and YA novels. I don’t have a good definition of what constitutes YA; this month’s issue of Writer’s Digest suggests that overt sexuality and graphic violence are both acceptable in YA books, so the main “limiting” factor seems to be that the protagonist should be high-school-aged. I’ll restrain myself from ranting about problematic assumptions that only kids want to read about young protagonists and say only that this book matches those guidelines: sexuality plays a major role in the story, though there’s no overt sexual activity on the page, and the viewpoint characters are all young. But not all at the same time.

Brides of Rollrock Island is the story of a place, a tiny village that feels very Scottish to me, and what happens to the people there over the course of a few generations when an unhappy girl with magic gifts decides to get revenge on those who mistreated her and ends up fundamentally changing her culture. The magic in question is the capacity to bring selkies out of their seal forms — to bring beautiful seal-women up onto the island, where they’re magically irresistible to all the men. Within a relatively short time (by social science standards at least ;)) every man on the island has decided he wants a selkie wife, and is willing to pay the “old witch” to bring him one, and all the human women have gone to the mainland in disgust.

In Aarti’s review of the book, she said what struck her most in this narrative was the illustration of slippery slopes: the idea that what was initially seen as uncanny and frightening quickly becomes matter-of-fact. Y’see, like many shapechanger myths, the selkie story’s got a dark side — in order for a husband to keep his beautiful seal-woman with him, he needs to hide her seal skin, because otherwise she’ll take it and change back into a seal and go back to the sea. In a generation, on Rollrock Island, all the corrolaries of this become normal: a man’s wife will come from the sea, and he’ll have to teach her everything about being a person, and if she bears him daughters instead of sons he’ll have to give them back to the sea to be seals, and he’ll have to lock her sealskin up with the rest so that she won’t disappear on him.

This point was striking to me, too, but what really enthralled me about this book was another piece of the narrative. As I alluded to up above, there are six different first-person narrators; they speak from different times in the history of Rollrock Island, and they aren’t presented in chronological order. So as you jump from one narrator to the next, your view of what’s really going on shifts and changes the way the island’s does.

I’m a sucker for animal shapechanger stories, and selkies are one of my favorites (Gwen Knighton has a song that touches on some of these same themes, along with her songs about Shadowrun and twisted fairy tales); but this one was exceptionally well-done because I felt like it presented the situation from all sides. The “villain” is one of the viewpoint characters, and we understand why she acts as she does; ditto the mainlanders, the human wives, the human men and the mixed selkie-human children (that voice might have been my favorite of all the ones we encounter). I’d strongly recommend this book, and I’m going to go off in search of Margo Lanagan’s other stuff.

A quote to tempt you before I go:

I remember lying with my mam in the sun on a rug on the sand at Six-Mile, and the thought coming out my mouth: “When I have a wife, I will let her speak seal in our house.”

“Oh, yes?” she said, surprised. “Why will you do that, my Daniel?”

“Because when wives talk seal they are happy, and I want my wife to be happy.”

I lay there pleased with myself for this wish, pleased with my own kindness uttering it to my mam, pleased with my plan for my future self, who would become a kind and admirable man. All was well with that day, the warmth of the sun and my mam and me on our island of blanket, other mams at a distance, other boys running and kicking up the water.

Mam turned to me, propped her head on her hand. “My darling,” she said softly, “if you want your wife to be happy, and to speak the seal-tongue truly, you will not take her as your wife.”

A propos of nothing: Yes, I know it’s been some time since I’ve posted here ::blows off dust:: The last three-quarters of a year have been busy with a pile of Big Life Changes, and now that I’m finally starting to feel settled on the other side of them, I decided it was time to come back to this space and see what I could do to revive it. And whittling down the reading list in a visible way seems like a good place to start.

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