Monday, January 07, 2013

You'd Think Seals Would Stay Well Away From Shore

I've never had much interest in selkie legends. To be honest, I've never had any interest in them. If Margo Lanagan hadn't written The Brides of Rollrock Island, it's unlikely I would have even picked the book up. But she did write it, and I am a big, big fan of her book, Tender Morsels. That's why I kept reading Brides even though I had a little difficulty getting into it.

But I did keep reading, and I did get into it, and The Brides of Rollrock Island is, like Tender Morsels, a quite marvelous book.

Misskaella, who is a central character in Brides, is a descendent of a selkie/human relationship, which, when she is young, is not a good thing. Like the main character  in Tender Morsels, she is treated badly as a young woman and responds by creating a world for herself. The main character in Tender Morsels creates a world into which she can escape. Misskaella creates a world that she dominates, taking her revenge on her village by giving its men what they believe they want, selkie wives.

Lanagan's story is told from the differing points of view of various characters over a period of time. In my experience, a lot of writers can't pull this off. The narrative drive is destroyed with each p.o.v. switch, and the writers often have trouble making each switch move the plot along. Lanagan does a great job with all that.

She also does a great job of using her characters to explore different aspects of the basic situation she's dealing with, families created with seal woman wives and mothers. She doesn't do any kind of romanticized fantasy thing here. Pretty much everyone is miserable. No, no, everyone is miserable. More than one character realizes that.

I think this book is about sex, for the most part, and how people end up living when everything in their lives takes second place to consummating a few moments of intense sexual desire. The whole seal element is tied up with desire. One of the sections that is from a child's point of view is very much a coming of age story. In that type of story, you'd expect a young boy's passage to adulthood to be rushed along by his learning about sex. Here, though, learning about the nature of sex is far less significant than learning about the nature of women. The big mysterious fact of life on Rollrock Island is that all the mams are actually seals.

This is a fantastic book. I wonder, though, if it is a young adult book. Is being a wife and mother enough? might be described as a central question in this story, and that is an adult question, it seems to me, though it could be argued that adolescents ought to be asking it. Many of the chapters start out from a child's point of view, but all these children become adults, and their adult selves are significant. Look at the cover. That's one of the seal wives you see there. Their age is never considered, and their lives as wives and mothers, not as young adults, is what's important to the story. The title is The Brides of Rollrock Island, putting stress on nonchild characters. In fact, we never get a chapter from a bride's point of view, though they are referred to in the title.

My concern with a book like this being marketed as young adult instead of general fiction is not that there's anything wrong with YAs reading it. I think adults would enjoy it more, though, and they may never find it.

Plot Project: This is a book that seems to be about situation. Once a writer looks at the selkie legends and starts thinking, Man, there's really nothing positive about this, she can run with that idea. There's also a definite disturbance to a world that gets this story going. Misskaella is treated badly, and as a result she brings on everything that happens to the villagers. I don't see the give-someone-something-to-want-and-keep-her-from-getting-it formula at work at all here.

The Brides of Rollrock Island was a Cybils nominee in the Fantasy/Science Fiction category.

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