Book Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

The Brides of Rollrock Island

Rollrock island is a lonely rock of gulls and waves, blunt fishermen and their homely 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 lie in herds, the outcast sea witch Misskaella casts her spells – and brings forth girls from the sea – girls with long, pale limbs and faces of haunting innocence and loveliness – the most enchantingly lovely girls the fishermen of Rollrock have ever seen.

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 those wide, questioning, liquid 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.

Margo Lanagan has written an extraordinary tale of desire, despair and transformation. In devastatingly beautiful prose, she reveals unforgettable characters capable of unspeakable cruelty – and deep unspoken love. After reading about the Rollrock fishermen and their sea brides, the world will not seem the same.

Paper copy given to me as a discard.

Having grown up with the idea of Selkies as part of Irish folklore, I decided to read this before I passed it on.

The first part of the book concentrates on Misskaella, the youngest of the Prout family, who seems to have a way with the Seals who live on the island’s beach, to the point where she has to cross herself to prevent them following her through the town. It sets the rest of the story up nicely, which then is told from several Points of View: the island man who desires a seal woman, even though he is already married; the island man who escaped to the mainland as a child, returns ahead of his marriage to sell the family home, only to be enchanted by a seal woman; the children of the Island men and the Seal Women, who don’t know life can be different until confronted by people from the mainland who find them fascinating, and who then find their mothers’ “coats” (seal skins) hanging up in the local pub for safe keeping; the escape of the women to the sea, taking their sons with them, and a clue as to what happens to any girl offspring; a possible change in fortune for the island and the future population;  The view of Misskaella through the eyes of her apprentice, who has been brought from the mainland to take over when Misskaella dies.

Misskaella, as the island witch, is the thread through all these stories as the only one who can encourage the seals to become women, and therefore to whom all men have a debt to repay. She therefore has power over the men, to give them what they think they want, even though she knows it will blight their lives as they will always be enchanted by the seal-women.

I’ve read one review of this book on Goodreads where the reader obviously hated it.  To quote some of the review:

That’s the book. There’s nothing else to the story, and there are no likable characters. There are character’s [sic] you feel bad for and you want to see victorious, but they are, in the end, either corrupted or loose. At one point you think a male character who will resist the witch, but no. He fails too.

The author seems to just loathe men. And while I’m against man-hating posing as feminism which permeates through literature like wild fire, I find it insulting that the men of this island get no punishment. Oh, after the “climax” they feel sad, sure. But that’s it. They’re free to go on with their lives. I can see where sorrow could be enough of a punishment, but the author is too focused on her flowered language and imagery to actually portray some kind of human emotion.

This is the first book from this author that I have read (and the first for the above reviewer as well). I struggle to see how the reviewer can tell, from this one book, that the author “seems to just loathe men” and “that the men of this island get no punishment”. I feel the men do get punished – they are under a spell to the seal women, in debt to Misskaella, constantly in fear that the women will leave them or do anything to go back to the sea, or that they will be found out and mocked by people from outside. They have beautiful, compliant wives, sure, but at what cost?


About this author

Margo Lanagan, born in Waratah, New South Wales, is an Australian writer of short stories and young adult fiction.

Many of her books, including YA fiction, were only published in Australia. Recently, several of her books have attracted worldwide attention. Her short story collection Black Juice won two World Fantasy Awards. It was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and the United Kingdom by Gollancz in 2004, and in North America by HarperCollins in 2005. It includes the much-anthologized short story “Singing My Sister Down”.

Her short story collection White Time, originally published in Australia by Allen & Unwin in 2000, was published in North America by HarperCollins in August 2006, after the success of Black Juice.


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