I love Margo Lanagan. This Australian author specializes in the dark, creepy, twisted, and thinky, and every time I read her work, I fall in love with her all over again. She takes fairy tales and works of folklore and bends them back on and around themselves, confronting the reader with a totally warped image of traditional stories and legends, and she does it with a quiet sort of smirk, in writing that is deft and beautiful and challenging.
I’ve had a lot of adults lately asking me about which books they should read if they want to start getting into YA, and Margo Lanagan is an author I recommend unreservedly. She showcases what I think are some of the best strengths of YA fiction today, including flexibility, boldness, the ability to tell and retell and mine old stories for new material. Her stories are also about ferocious, complicated women, and she explores a number of themes around mothering, childbearing, beauty and ugliness, dream women and reality, abuse, and other dark, intense things between the lines of singing prose.
So if you’re not already sold on Margo Lanagan, here’s The Brides of Rollrock Island, which is a dark version of the already dark selkie myth. In this particular narrative, a witch brings forth women from the sea for the men of the island, who become hungry for the sea women, indebted to the witch for her services, and ensnared in a conspiracy to trap the selkies on land by hiding their skins in a shack behind the local bar. As the women grow increasingly sad and frustrated they begin slipping away into depression and suicide, the sort of natural extension of a myth that’s always struck me as rather bitter, sad, and lonely.
It’s a story about women seized and forced from their homes, required to perform on land for the pleasure of their land-based husbands, even as they long for the world they lived in as seals. Selkies are inherently victims of kidnapping and abusive relationships, as their human partners conceal their skins so they can never return to the sea, as the humans know full well that the selkies will never come back to shore once they escape. There’s nothing romantic or beautiful about the selkie legend (which in many ways also reminds me of the original Little Mermaid legend, except that she was given more choice and ultimately was forced to choose between the sea she loved and her partner on land, caught forever between two worlds).
In Lanagan’s interpretation, the selkie myth is even darker. This is an island where daughters are returned to the sea, where boys grow up wild and half-seal themselves, where the mainland looks on suspiciously, viewing Rollrock Island as a place of magic and fears, where the population grows steadily less human. And it’s an island of torment, as the women struggle to survive on land and find themselves missing the sea the longer they’re kept away from it, even though they visit it every day and lie under blankets of seaweed, filling their homes with the small pieces of the sea they can bring with them.
Matters begin to build to a head when the children get involved and decide to free the selkies, who resolve to take their children with them, at one fell swoop taking all the women and children from the island and returning them to the sea. Lanagan doesn’t stop with this bittersweet balancing of the scales, though, for in their lives as seals, the women and children run wild through the sea, but they’re also caught by fishermen near and close. Some of the children survive and return to the island, while others are slaughtered far from home; Lanagan paints an image of seas running red with blood that might come from seals, selkies, or something in-between that gave me the chills, personally.
The Brides of Rollrock Island is told in the form of a series of narratives from different perspectives about life on the island at different times. We see the terrifying witch through the eyes of young children, and we see her as a young woman ostracised by the island and then greedily sought-after because of her skills. We see how she and her apprentice are viewed as gross and horrifying, living in a shanty by the edge of the sea instead of occupying the huge mansion they’ve filled with goods from their work, and we see how her raising of the selkies is actually used as a slow, creative, cruel revenge on a town that treated her with such disrespect as a child and a young woman.
As she drags people into her revenge and uses her abilities for torment, though, the witch doesn’t really seem to find any meaningful form of happiness. She drifts through Rollrock Island alone, even with her apprentice by her side, longing for a resolution that will never come no matter how many selkies she raises and how many men she ruins. The tale becomes a stark narrative about revenge, justice, and the harsh realities of life in a world that is often unfair and keeps raining down the unfairness without much pity.
It’s the kind of story that leaves a rather bitter taste in your mouth, but it’s supposed to. That salty, unstable, angry sort of feeling runs through the whole book, and through many of the characters depicted; even the ones who seem to lead relatively happy lives, to ‘escape,’ are really just cogs within a larger and rather merciless machine.