Tuesday 25 September 2012

Book Review | The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

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On remote Rollrock Island, men go to sea to make their livings — and to catch their wives.

The witch Misskaella knows the way of drawing a girl from the heart of a seal, of luring the beauty out of the beast. And for a price a man may buy himself a lovely sea-wife. He may have and hold and keep her. And he will 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. He will be equally ensnared. And the witch will have her true payment.

Margo Lanagan weaves an extraordinary tale of desire, despair, and transformation. With devastatingly beautiful prose, she reveals characters capable of unspeakable cruelty, but also unspoken love.


On our first sight of the sea-witch Misskaella, who haunts the shore of Rollrock Island, she's "sat exactly halfway between tideline and water, as if she meant to catch the lot of us." (p.3)

So fantasise the fearful children, at least, to whom the haggard old crone at the broken heart of this bitterly beautiful book represents "the face of our night-horrors, white and creased and greedy." (p.5) That would be the exact reaction Misskaella, in her more maudlin moments, mean to elicit, but her position, perched on a boulder on this borderline - with a foot on the land and a fin in the froth - signifies something else. It speaks of a love lost, and a life divided: two of the core concerns of Margo Lanagan's hypnotic new novel.

Initially, admittedly, this prologue is almost incomprehensible. But return to it - as I did immediately after finishing The Brides of Rollrock Island's masterful last chapter - and its intent is resonant, as pure and cold and clear as the godforsaken sea.

Of course, the old witch was young once, and it is the tall tale of her horrid origins that properly sets off this year's best contender. To begin with, wee Misskaella is an innocent, but the last of the litter's little life takes a dark turn when her dying grandmam comments cruelly on her "miscast" (p.16) appearance.
"Her face was all dismay, looking at me. My hand came up to touch my nose and mouth, but they were only the same nose and mouth I had always had; there was nothing new or monstrous about them." (ibid)
Indeed not. Yet nevertheless, Misskaella knows now that something - some strange quirk of chemistry - sets her apart from the island's other young 'uns, and hot on the heels of this question, an answer, for it seems she has some of the seal in her. Some sympathetic power over selkie-kind. Out of blubbery sea-skins Misskaella can call beautiful, wondrous women, and so she does in later life, for a substantial sum — though this is a twisted sort of torture to her, still all ugly and utterly unloved.
"And now I saw a seal-girl's face, straight on and lamp-lit, for the first time. Not quite human, she was all the more beautiful for that. Her dark features sat in the smooth skin like a puzzle of stones and shells; I wanted to look and look until I had solved it." (p.126) 
In time, taking a sea-wife for a bride becomes a tradition on the island, as unspeakable as it is irresistible. This progressively gentles Rollrock's men, and drives away all other comers, frustrated and enraged. Cannily, Lanagan moves away from Misskaella at this stage, so that the reader may see the slope become slippery through the eyes of a number of neat narrators, including a woman blithely betrayed by her husband and son; a young man who abandons his fiery fiance for the "straightness and [...] strangeness" (p.160) of a submissive selkie temptress; and a boy whose love for his mam knows no bounds, and whose mam's love for the sea acknowledges no bond — a mother and son whose actions will change the course of many more souls than their own.

The Brides of Rollrock Island builds and builds and builds in this way, brilliantly I dare say, until it ends — and just as well, because by then my emotions were about to spill over. I've not been more moved by a book in years.

In part, that's thanks to its unsettling subject matter, which is to say the systematic corruption of those all too human ideals of beauty and purity... though the author is never so crass as to say so in such terms. In fact, very little of Lanagan's latest is explicit - The Brides of Rollrock Island's soaring success is all in the implication - such that one must work at an understanding.

This question of accessibility is a moderate obstacle - I fear Lanagan's lyrical language will be too much for some, and too little for others - but only then at the outset. Indeed, ease of entry into the folksy fairy-tale before us is mirrored by the opening up of Rollrock's initially forbidding front face, as espied by a lady from the mainland:
"The island rose from the horizon. It looked like nothing so much as a giant slumped seal itself, the head towards us and the bulk lumping up behind, trailing out northeast to the tail. Its slopes were greened over, its near side all cliffs and cliff pieces, chewed off but not swallowed by the sea. Every cove and cave looked alike inaccessible to me, most treacherous and unwelcoming.

"But we did not head for that rough bit of coast as we drew nearer; instead we bore westward and around the head there, and once beyond that I could see where the land lowered itself more gently, making room for a town, a small town only, on the slopes above the two long moles built out from the shore." (pp.279-80)
As above, so below. Certainly there is a peculiar poetry to Lanagan's prose: a power - all her own - over those who push through the opaque prologue, and with my every word I would urge you to do exactly that. Other than the lackluster cover, there's nothing not to love about The Brides of Rollrock Island. It's a wistful book, but wondrous. It will break your heart, and remake it.

Surrender yourself, then, to Margo Langan's mesmerising new novel. Allow it to surround you like a shimmering second skin... finer, fuller, and freer, finally, than the first. The Brides of Rollrock Island is all that and then some.


This review originally appeared, in a slightly altered form, on tor.com.


The Brides of Rollrock Island
by Margo Lanagan

UK Publication: February 2012, David Fickling Books
US Publication: September 2012, Knopf Books

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