Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

This is a Margo Lanagan novel, so I was pretty sure it was going to make me uncomfortable.  And I was right.

It's the story of an isolated town, a little island fishing community, where something cruel and deviant becomes socially acceptable.  Although the novel reminds me of news stories about Pitcairn Island, the plot's ripped from folktales, not headlines. 
The cruel and deviant thing the people on Rollrock Island do is trap Seal Women in their human form to satisfy the sexual and domestic desires of the men.  This is done by hiding their "seal skins," without which the women cannot transform back into seals.  

Each chapter of the book is like a stand-alone story, told in first person from the perspective of someone who lives on the island.  The author commits totally to the perspectives of her chosen narrators and only allows us to see what they see and know what they know.  The writing is gorgeous, and the many stories-within-a-story each build to their own climax, usually a revelation of some kind which allows us to better understand how "something like this" could happen. 

::Women hating women

What makes me uncomfortable is the characterization of the sea wives.  According to this site, sea wives, or selkies, are known in folklore to be "excellent wives."  And in Lanagan's novel, they seem irresistible to men.  So what makes them irresistible? 
  • First of all, they are beautiful and exotic.  In contrast to the red-haired, freckled humans in the story, the Sea Wives have clear skin and silky dark hair, lean limbs and small bottoms.  
  • Second, they have no inhibitions about sex or nakedness--they are sort of Eve-in-the-garden-of-Eden-like, delighted by sex but also somehow innocent.
  • Finally, it seems that the Sea Wives don't age, or nag, or question their husbands, and they need to be taught everything.  They even need their husbands to name them, since their seal names can't be pronounced by human tongues.  In a word, they are docile. 
Is that really what men want from women?  I fear it may be what some men want.  But all men?  Perhaps not. 

Most of the events in the story are based on tropes found in traditional selkie folktales--I won't list them here because I don't want to be spoilery, but there are good examples here or, you know, on wikipedia.  But the author makes one significant change.* 

In the traditional folktales, it seems the selkies transform into humans of their own volition, and the male ones sometimes emerge specifically to seek out "unsatisfied women."  But in The Brides of Rollrock, a "witch" draws the Seal Women out of their seal skins and collects money from the men who take them as wives.

I've wondered why the author needed to create a witch character, particularly one who is motivated by sexual jealousy.  This addition turns the novel into a story about female misogyny, rather than just a story about men disregarding women's rights.

::A vivid reading experience

The story is beautifully written on both the micro and macro level.  It's a pleasure to read out loud, because of the many subtle connections between words: alliterations, near-rhymes, repetitions.  But Lanagan's real gift seems to be mesmerizing descriptions, the kind that put you on edge, the kind that are just a little too visceral--not disgusting, but disorienting, liminal.  Consider this description of a Sea Wife emerging:
An invisible knife pierced the flesh under the beast's chin and pulled a dark line down its body.  I cried out, my voice feeble, quite without magical force, as the seal opened bloodlessly, parting like giant lips.  But instead of teeth appearing and a tongue, the skin convulsed, and from its darkness and its glistening a girl sat up.
On the macro level, the story unspools in not-quite-chronological order (I believe the first chapter comes chronologically before the second-to-last).  If I had referred back to the table of contents, I might have understood the structure better, but I liked being slightly unsure about things.  I began each chapter wondering how much time had passed since the last chapter and if I would encounter any of the characters I had met before.  Often, characters overlapped, but sometimes I didn't immediately recognize them.  I often had questions (why don't the Seal Wives have daughters?), but my questions were always answered--usually in a passing comment by one of the characters. Very show-don't-tell.

So at first I thought I was reading a series of interconnected stories, but when I got to the end, I saw that there was a clear narrative arc, and I had the satisfying feeling that I had finished a much longer, multi-generational family epic.

::A perturbing perspective

Now, the many voices of this story are distinct, and I found I cared very much about what happened in each story, but at the same time, I didn't identify with any of the characters.  I wonder if this will bother some readers.  I so often see people criticizing books because they don't like or care about or feel invested in the characters.

Do you have to care about the characters of a book to care what happens to them?
For me, this book is proof that you don't have to like the characters to care about what happens.  Which is not to say that there aren't likeable characters.  But there are also many dislikable ones, and what I ended up caring about was not a particular person, but the fate of the community, as though it might prove something about other communities or about people in general.

In fact, perhaps the most praiseworthy but perturbing aspect of the book is the fact that the reader is forced to see things from the perspective of people who entrap the Sea Wives, or enable their entrapment.  I kept waiting for the part where one of the Sea Wives would narrate, but it never came.  These women remain strange, undifferentiated, and "other" for the entire book.**  We never discover their personalities; we only observe their suffering.

Is the message here that we make people unknowable by oppressing them?  Or am I wrong to think of the Seal Wives as people?  This feels like a story about oppression, but I don't think the author started with an example of real life oppression and then translated it into a fairytale setting.  I think she started with the premise of seals turning into women and then followed it to its natural, shocking conclusion. 

::Read it?

I don't think this book will be marketed to boys, but I wish they would read it. I guess I'll have to hope that GuysLitWire reviews it or something. This book is actually primarily narrated by male characters, and they're not all bad guys.  In fact, as I mentioned before, the real villain is a woman.  So I can see male readers identifying with this story more than I did, although since the witch's narrative comes early in the story, it might at first seem to be written from a female perspective.

However, since the fairy-tale-retelling is more often marketed to girls, I assume they will read this story.  (Also, there's the word "bride" in the title.)  Those who are looking for a romantic shapeshifter story will be sort of shocked.  Such readers would be better off reading Maggie Stiefvater.  But to anyone whose favorite book last year was Chime, this book could be the most stunning one you read this year.

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