Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review - The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

There are very few writers that leave me so eagerly anticipating their next novel that I will rearrange my schedule to read it. Years ago, I rushed to the bookstore to snatch up the latest Robert Jordan or Tad Williams installment the moment it hit the shelves. These days, with literally hundreds of patient, unread books on the shelves whispering “read me!”, and my tastes constantly evolving, very few authors receive immediate readings.

Hell, even A Dance With Dragons and The Wise Man’s Fear - and let’s admit it, ongoing series tend to receive some priority, since the story is incomplete – waited a few months from release before I cracked their spines. Anticipation, after all, whets the appetite.

But there are exceptions. When I learned some time in January that Margo Lanagan was releasing a new novel, I sat up very straight in my chair and began fishing around online for release dates. I devoured her first novel – World Fantasy Award Winner Tender Morsels - and found that her short story collections served to whet my appetite for the next novel quite enough, thank you. I didn’t intend to wait.

Then I discovered, to my chagrin, that the Australian & UK release dates were set for mid-February, while the US edition wouldn’t be released until September. September!

Waiting I would be, it seemed…because I have this phobia about paying for shipping. There are many, many things I don’t mind paying for, but shipping falls into the painful gray area of “utterly wasted money”, and international shipping…well, even the thought makes me shiver. There’s a great UK-based bookstore called The Book Depository that ships free worldwide, but it kept telling me the book was out of stock.

I’m nothing, however, if not persistent. I finally found a new copy on Abe Books – fulfilled through the Book Depository. Does this meandering backstory have a point? Not really, other than to tell any other anxious readers that you can find your own international copies in that way if you don’t want to wait until September.

And you shouldn't.

The Brides of Rollrock Island is a novel based on the author’s novella from 2010, “Sea Hearts”, which won the World Fantasy Award for that category and went on to appear in The Best Dark Fantasy and Horror of 2010 anthology. I hadn’t read the novella, mainly because it originally appeared in an Australian anthology that was difficult to come by in the US.

The Brides of Rollrock Island is an unfortunate title, and the UK edition that I purchased has underwhelming, stock-YA cover art. The Australian version of the novel kept the Sea Hearts title but the UK and US versions opted for Brides instead. Who knows why marketing departments make the decisions that they do? Sea Hearts is a far more fitting title, certainly. One that reflects the many nuances and conflicts that Lanagan portrays.

My disappointment in the presentation faded quickly once I began the opening chapter. I slipped into Lanagan’s fictional world like a selkie back into its skin.

The story is narrated by six different characters, though the bulk of the action revolves around only two, separated by a generation – Daniel Mallett, a young boy from the village; and Misskaella Prout, an outcast girl who becomes the means for drawing women from the seals. For a novel this short – it clocks in at just under 300 pages – you might think this method would hinder the ability to build character, but somehow the tale, and the characters themselves, emerge as distinct and greater than the sum of their parts.

The basic premise of the novel is this: On a lonely island, Misskaella is a witch with the ability to draw women – beautiful, enchanting women – from the seals that return to the island to breed and bask each spring. The men become so enchanted by the seal-women that they take them as wives – even those that already have wives and family – and drive all of the “human” women to the mainland.

That, of course, is only the bird’s-eye view. A cover blurb that doesn’t come close to capturing the novel’s heart. The novel has at its center a number of ideas – a contrast between real flesh-and-blood women and their idealized, submissive selkie counterparts; the effect of the absence of real female presence on the men and children of the island; an evocation of the tensions, jealousies, and bonds that form in an isolated community; but perhaps more than anything the underlying instinct – the drive – of both human & selkie alike to return home. The selkies rejoice to return to the sea; no less does Dominick Mallett rejoice on his return to Rollrock, after many years away. Nostalgia, in part. But also an old glove that fits the hand.

Lanagan’s prose is an absolute pleasure, utilitarian and poetic at the same time. It rarely bogs down or draws attention to itself, but builds on very specific details that reflect the setting and move the story forward without sacrificing style. Spare, where sparseness is required. Like Rollrock Island itself. Full of wonder at other times, teeming with the wild magic that lies beneath a bluff exterior.

    When the wind was a particular strength of nor’-easter, Toddy and I would run up towards Windaway Peak. There was a blade of land there, up which funneled all the airs from Gambrel Wood to Oaten Share, and we stood on it with our toes curled over the rock like eagle-claws, and spread our arms and were held up by the wind. It would push and sluice around us, and overbalance us back down towards the path, or desert us so that we fell forward into a shallow little tumble-room on the south side, and make us laugh. (Lanagan, 273)

Lanagan’s novels and stories all seem to take place in a sort of timeless zone, an area just outside of the common world, and The Brides of Rollrock Island is no exception. There are nods toward a modern or semi-modern lifestyle, especially on the mainland – busses, motorboats, electricity – but Rollrock seems to exist outside of these things for the most part. There is no attempt to place the story in a definite time-frame, and I think it would be unproductive to do so. Like fairy tales, Lanagan’s writings take place just off the map somewhere, in that no-man’s land where fantasy and reality collide (Lanagan’s first novel, Tender Morsels, was very much about the collision of fantasy with reality).

And yet, despite the timeless feel of the island setting, we get a great sense of the “roll” of time and generations through the novel, seeing the changes through the eyes of several characters, often separated by twenty or thirty years of time.

If there was one problem I found with the novel, it was the general helplessness of the men against Misskaella and the sea-wives.

Only one male character in the novel manages to resist the lure of the selkies. His ability to withstand what all the others are utterly defenseless against is never explained, and its importance is downplayed. His resistance implies that the men’s choices are not all controlled by enchantment, but (at least in part) by free will. This casts the decisions of the rest of the male population in an unflattering light, to say the least.

I found the general weakness and simplicity of the male characters a bit off-putting. The men in this novel are not bad, heartless people, per se, but they are often crude, hormone-driven fools. There is some truth there, but it is far from a universal truth.

That qualm aside, this is a vibrant, beautifully-written novel, full of the magic of island and sea and of those things – human and otherwise – that pass between. Highly recommended.


  1. What a beautiful review. I may well buy it for me and my son

  2. Thanks, Mike. It's a really wonderful book - one of the best I've read this year. Her first novel, Tender Morsels, is similarly recommended.