I finished reading Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island about a week ago.
I’m completely in awe.
Rollrock is a small, isolated island where it has become common practice for men to take “sea-wives” when they are to marry. The whole island is populated by men, and the only female beings are the sea-wives, alluring creatures and obedient housewives at the same time. But this was not always the case, once both women and men, girls and boys lived on the island and seals who turned into women were only considered tales or talked about in hushed whispers.
What Lanagan has done here is amazing. By taking the myth about selkies and painting her own, wonderfully imaginative story around it she has written her own tale of oppression, sexism, structures and change.
It is so wonderful on so many levels, and deeply sad at the same time. I felt tears welling up when one of the many protagonists in the book, Daniel, who has grown up with a selkie mother and a human father notices how his mother occasionally goes into grave moods, curled up in a blanket made out of seaweed and when he asks her what is wrong, her only answer is that she misses the sea and that there’s nothing he can do, and as Daniel watches her he thinks:
She was not comfortable – she was miserable. Like Aggie, like Amy Dressler, like all the mams, all the wives, she was more unhappy than I had ever been; they were unhappy beyond any unhappiness that a boy like me could imagine or fathom. And Dad was miserable too; all the dads were – for who could be happy with his wife in such a state?
There are plenty of moments, sentences and symbolisms that catches the nature of oppression and objectification so painfully well. But what I also love is how the discomfort of the younger generation is portrayed, the feeling that something is wrong, despite being shaped by the life on the island, like the view that all mothers, and therefore all females have straight shining hair, are long, elegant and beautiful and distinctly different from the fathers who are short with read, curly hair, gangly, etc. Or growing up with the expectation that when the time comes to marry, it is wholly natural to seek out Misskaella, the cast-out woman with mysterious powers and pay her a sum so she will turn one of the seals into a bride for you to name and claim. How the boys realize that their mothers are miserable and how they want to know if there is anything that can be done to change things, even at the cost of nothing being altogether better, just something else, something that is not the current state of profound unhappiness for everyone involved.
There is much more to the book, and many other significant parts and great characters I haven’t mentioned because I felt that it became a greater experience to read the book without knowing about all the characters or the overall arc of the story.
Suffice to say, I loved this book and the way it handled its subject matter respectfully, intelligently and poetically, and without shying away from the heavier implications of the story.
I’m also tremendously happy to have discovered an author I can’t wait to read more works of.