9 April 2013

Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

'I must remember how to be ordinary now that I'd seen the wonders inside me.'


"Rollrock is a lonely island of cliffs and storms, blunt fishermen and their fierce wives. Life is hard for the families who must wring a poor living from the stormy seas. But Rollrock is also a place of magic - the scary, salty-real sort of magic that changes lives forever. Down on the windswept beach, where the seals lies in their herd, the outcast sea witch Misskaella casts her spells, and brings forth girls from the sea - girls with long, pale limbs and faces of haunting loveliness. But magic always has its price. A fisherman may have and hold a sea bride, and tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into her lovely eyes, he will be just as transformed as she is. He will be equally ensnared. And in the end the witch will always have her payment."

First Line: "The old witch is there,' said Raditch, peering over the top to Six-Mile Beach."

This is a careful and thoughtful story of myth, magic, family and loneliness. It is not fast paced and full of action, although there are some dramatic moments wonderfully full of tension. It is haunting and it really got under my skin whilst I was reading it. The only thing lacking for me personally was a main character I could invest it - whilst I enjoyed the way that none of our characters are clear cut heroes or villains, it did mean that there isn't anyone in particular to root for. I liked the non traditional structure and that it was different and intelligent. I would highly recommend this to adults and to teen readers who enjoy beautiful language and ideas as much as exciting plot.

Why I read it: It was on the Carnegie longlist this year. Whilst it didn't make the official shortlist, out of the longlist titles I read it have made my personal shortlist (link to Carnegie predictions post). 

Who I would recommend it to: If you enjoyed The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvator or The Bride's Farewell by Meg Rosoff.


This is the story of Rollrock Island and the generations of people that live there during the life of Misskaella the sea witch. We first meet Misskaella when she is old and through the scared eyes of local children on the beach but we quickly jump back to Misskaella's own childhood. As I mentioned above, I liked the way that Lanagan explains why Misskaella is the way she is without excusing her for things she does wrong. In fact, the lack of judgment on any of the characters is a theme. They are people - we are shown why they are as they are and then shown how they act. Many of them make mistakes or are misguided but we're they're not there as unsubtle markers of right or wrong. As a child Miskaella is awkward and overweight - she is shut out of the close-knit island community but also shown the wonders of nature and magic. As she grows up she is both fascinated and repelled by the men of Rollrock and their desire for sea brides, just as the men, and us, are fascinated and repelled by her magic. Whilst she is hardly our heroine, Miskaella is the core of the story and it is framed around her life as see generations pass through the island. 

Even though the book hangs of myths and questions, not plot, I still don't want to give away too much of what happens. We see the sea brides turn from somewhere between myth and history to reality and the impact that this has on the men, women and children of the island. We hear from the perspective of several characters but never from one of the brides themselves - we never find out exactly how they feel, we only get hints and ideas through other character's eyes. Obviously the selkie myth has not been invented by Lanagan and it interesting to see how she plays with it. I read a review that criticised the book for being misogynistic and I think that that reviewer rather obtusely chose to ignore any subtlety to the story and seemed to not understand that the things the author's opinions, their story, their message and their characters can all be very distinct things - just because the men of Rollrock conjure brides from the sea does not mean that Lanagan is pushing some sort of arranged marriage message (obviously, I would have thought). However it does raise ideas of gender and marriage, loyalty and responsibility and I'm interested to talk to my students who have read this how they responded to this, particularly as they have grown up in a society so far removed from what we see on Rollrock. 

The thing that stopped me adoring this novel is also one of it's strengths - the lack of emotional core. I've said I appreciated that our characters are nuanced and flawed but there aren't really any characters you can grasp on to or relate to. The sea brides you feel for, but they are also cold and unnerving. We get a chapter from the perspective of a woman named Lory who I would have liked to read more about but this is a short chapter near the end of the novel. This also adds to the melancholy feel of the novel- this is not an uplifting story with a neat happy ending and I think some teen readers will find it rather depressing. The island is a bleak and grey place but what lifts the novel from being bleak and grey itself is Lanagan's wonderful writing - you have quotes like this, beautifully melding the desolate with the illuminating;

         'How lovely it was to be tiny and alone, to have quickened to living for a moment here, to be destined soon to blink out and let time wash away all mark and remembrance of me.'


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