Contains some minor spoilers:
This book definitely exceeded my expectations. It was a little slow at times but I enjoyed Lanagan’s way with words so much that the patience required to get into the story was well worth it. The story is intriguing and captivating yet tragic and heartbreaking. It’s dark and twisted but not overwhelmingly so. Lanagan’s writing style is unique. Her words created such a rich visual of Rollrock Island and its inhabitants that they are still fresh and clear in my mind’s eye. I found myself staring off into space many times while reading this just thinking about the story, the themes, contemplating its purpose and meaning.
The story is told from 6 different character’s POVs over a couple of generations. We are quickly introduced to the island in the first chapter from a young Daniel Mallet’s point of view before we are thrust into the past to discover the events which have led to the current, unusual circumstances on the island.
In Misskaella’s chapter we uncover events and tragedies that will affect the town’s future and lead to its downfall. From an early age MIsskaella is an outcast on Rollrock Island, even amongst her own family. She is bullied and picked on for her otherness – her looks, her weight and her strange connection with the seals of Rollrock Island. Whilst she and her siblings are too young to know the significance of this connection, the older townsfolk foresee trouble. Initially Misskaella is presented as a Cinderella-type heroine. Not through her own fault or doing, but for what she is, she is shunned and looked down upon by her family and eventually the whole town. Unlike Cinderella, Misskaella is not rescued by her Prince Charming.
It is one night of unexpected pleasure and its tragic consequences that is the final straw for Misskaella, who up until this point has almost begrudgingly accepted her fate in life. “I had been such a fool in my momentary bliss, thinking that things would change for me! All I had known since then was grief; to pay for that night’s pleasure, my heart had been cut out and thrown into the sea, to be grieved after forever”.
Misskaella festers in her loneliness and loss and forms a lifelong grudge against the people of Rollrock Island. Her revenge is catastrophic and far-reaching but it’s also understandable. It is only after years of being treated so badly by the town that Misskaella uses her power as a weapon rather than a gift. It is the whole town, both the men and women of Rollrock, who pay the ultimate price for their mistreatment of Misskaella.“This was how it was done, then, and this was how it would be, each man buying his misery from me, believing it would be his wedded bliss”.
As Misskaella embraces her power and unleashes it for any man who can pay the price, she finds herself providing a mail-order-bride type service for the local men. Initially the women of Rollrock are indifferent to the selkies while the men are immediately enamoured by the bewitching, yet somewhat vacant, sea sirens. It doesn’t take long though for the local women to discover the powerful affect the selkies have on their men and before long the women cannot (and do not even attempt to) compete with the allure of the ethereal selkies and flee the island with their children. My heart broke for these women. They were so disappointed in and unprepared for the actions and rejection from their husbands, sons and brothers. The mainland women never stood a chance against the selkies and that saddened me as I am
a mainland woman, not a selkie.
Of all the characters in this story Misskaela and Dominic Mallett were most interesting to me. They are likeable, virtuous and righteous characters who unwillingly and unintentionally succumb to the island’s temptation and dark magic. Dominic is unique in that he is the only child on the island who doesn’t grow up with a selkie mam. Unlike every other male on the island at the time, his father married a mainland girl. Dominic leaves the island at an early age and moves to Cordlin with his mam but never forgets his father’s thoughtful advice: “’When it comes to marrying, go to the mainland’, he said. ‘Get yourself a Cordlin woman, like your mother. That’s the proper kind of wife for men like us’”.
For a long time he seems to take heed of his father’s advice and appears to have escaped the lure of the island and the selkies. He seems so sure of what he wants. Eventually, circumstances lead him back to the island to test his loyalties back on the mainland. I’m still not sure whether Dominic’s decisions made him happy or if he lived to regret them. Dominic’s choices beg the question, do the men succumb to the selkies due to an outside, uncontrollable force or are all the men inherently attracted to the alluring and beautiful selkies? Are the men mere pawns in Misskaella’s revenge or are they weak and easily lured by the promise of a submissive wife, willing to succumb to their every desire? Why are they willing to forego intellect, wit and personality for superficial beauty and physical pleasure? “’Happened to us Dominic?’ Her voice was deep with scorn. ‘Let there be no mistake about this, Dominic: nothing happened to us. You did this thing, to me. You chose that creature above me’”.
The selkies remain somewhat of a mystery to me. I assume we are not given their POV in the story on purpose. On the outside they appear to be vacant, carbon-copy Stepford wives. But are they? We know they are caring and kind towards their husbands and sons who are completely bewitched by them but what little dialogue we do get doesn’t really give us an insight into their personalities. I felt for them but my loyalties remained with the mainland women and I was glad to see them return to the ocean for both their sake and the island’s. I felt for their kind hearted sons, desperate to please and appease their depressed and unhappy mams.
The ending is anti-climactic and gentle, rather like the rest of the story and much like a fairy tale. We see that the island is healing and moving forward from the loss of the selkies but we can’t assume that the events of the past will not repeat themselves. Apart from the beautiful writing, tragic characters and stunning visual descriptions in this book, I really enjoyed the thoughts and questions that this book provoked. I’m still thinking and wondering about the lessons learned and moral of the story.