Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island; Margo Lanagan

Haunting and beautiful (4 stars)

Source- personal copy

Published byDavid Fickling Books, April 2013

Paperback edition is 320 pages

I’m not usually a massive fan of fantasy books (barring Harry Potter of course). They have to be full of intricate details and well-crafted characters to even hold my attention in the first place, but more to the point, they also need to be wholly original and clever. Happily, The Brides of Rollrock Island ticks all of those boxes; this was an engrossing, magical read that I devoured almost in one sitting. The reviews for it have been full of praise and after completing it, it’s easy to see its appeal: half fairytale, the re-working of a mesmerising sea legend, it is an almost ethereal reading experience- full of enchantment and other-wordly characters. The Brides of Rollrock Island is the sort of novel that casts its spell on you and just won’t let you go.

The island of Rollrock is remote and mysterious; some of its islanders haven’t left its shores in their whole lives. Windswept, wild and salty, its men-folk make their living from the sea and try their best to provide for their families. Rollrock is also a place of envy and desire. Its feared witch, Misskaella, conjures strange women from the sea, beautiful women with dark hair and long pale limbs- the seal girls. The men-folk are drawn to these women and soon take them for brides, but as the generations pass, it soon becomes clear that the lure of the ocean is too strong and eventually the sea will claim these brides back…

This is such a tough book to review. It is initially slow-burning, almost dream-like and poetic in its prose. It soon becomes more sinister as the reader begins to understand what is going on- the concept that these women are taken from the sea by their new husbands and literally kidnapped. They have no means of getting back to where they came from as their seal coats are taken from them, and as they bear children, are torn between their old lives and new ones. At this point the story turns bleak and emotive; you want these women to be able to get back their true selves, despite what this means for the islands men and their children.

The novel is filled with some incredible sensory writing; you can literally feel the sea breeze ruffling your hair and smell the irony tang of the ocean. Rollrock in essence becomes a character within the story and I could clearly envisage this isolated community with its introverted people, keen to harbour their secrets from the outside world. The seal brides are seen as oddities by outsiders, something that the men and their sons are keen to shelter the women from. Their over-protective qualities appear touching at first, till it dawns on the reader that it is the men who have led their brides to that predicament and state of unhappiness in the first place- a vicious circle.

There are quite a lot of characters in the book. Initially I found it pretty confusing, especially as some of them had some quite old-fashioned names, though it soon becomes clear how their family trees fit together and it was interesting to explore the concept of the sea brides from different perspectives and see how unhappy patterns repeated themselves from father to son. The witch, Miskaella, was flawed from the outset but was a very strong character. Ostracised from society and the other islanders (especially the men who would never look twice at her), her motives for casting her spells and drawing the women from the sea initially appeared to be those of revenge, though I found myself actually feeling quite sorry for her. You see how she has been treated, almost feared for her power, and comprehend why she wants her vengeance on the people around her, though it does not justify her actions.

In terms of old-fashioned names, the story and setting itself also has quite a twee, timeless quality to it. The different generations of islanders are examined within the plot, but the story itself could be set at virtually any time, which I loved. It just ensures the book itself is all the more magical and fantastical. The mythology was so well-crafted and I just found the idea of different generations of sea brides all sat miserably under knitted blankets of seaweed, longing to be back in the ocean so incredibly poignant and powerful.

The book for me, loses a star, merely as I’m just not sure whether telling it in multiple POV actually always worked. This element of narration made the book seem a bit disjointed in places, whilst I feel perhaps telling it in a third or second person point of view would have made it flow a bit more seamlessly. As it is something of a slow-burn, I can understand why some readers have given up on the novel when the narrators switch as it does indeed take some getting used to.

This was however a thoroughly bewitching novel about relationships and folklore and was a very original read that has something of a wistful, whimsical quality to it. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of Margo Lanagan’s other work, but safe to say that this will be rectified in future. She is a very skilful storyteller and this was a book that was worth waiting for.

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