Last year I read and loved Lanagan’s short story “Crow and Caper, Caper and Crow” in a very satisfying collection by various authors that I wrote about here. I picked up a copy of The Brides of Rollrock Island shortly afterwards from the library and the book has bounced between my work locker and library-book spot at home ever since. What can I say? Sometimes I just don’t want to share. Anyway, last weekend I buried myself in a blanket and read it from cover to cover, and it was well worth the wait.
My husband Thumbs, his brother, my brother and I play a game occasionally where we try to sum up a thing we love (or hate) in as few words as possible, a “quick fire review”. I’ve been trying to think of one for this all week, and finally came up with: Zoe Gilbert’s Folk by way of Levin’s The Stepford Wives, sprinkled with Shirley Jackson-ish unease. By which I mean, I frigging loved this story. And I have no way of talking about it without big fat SPOILERS, so, please be warned.
It’s a much sharper edged thing than Folk, but there are some interesting similarities: both are about a couple of generations of people who live on a small island largely cut off from the wider world, both contain wives/mothers who have come from the sea (although this is the main thrust of Lanagan’s story and was only a single thread of Gilbert’s), and both are predominantly melancholy in flavour. Both are also stories told from a number of points of view. Lanagan has a lot to show us about the darker hearts of men and women however, and this makes her book far and away the spikier and more unsettling read.
“For a long time I seemed to be everyone’s but my own; I was like a broom or a dishrag that anyone might pick up and use, and put aside without a thought when they were done with me.”
Misskaella Prout (gotta love that name) is cause and reason for everything that happens within the pages of The Brides of Rollrock Island. We meet her ever so briefly in the opening pages as an old witch knitting on the sea shore, before we are taken back to her childhood. The youngest of seven children, she is described early on by one of many insensitive-bordering-on-just-plain-cruel relatives as “a bit slanted, a bit mixed” and “miscast”, because she “harks back” to the selkie blood that runs through her father’s side of the family. When she turns nine she is struck by a strange illness (in fact the awakening of her magic), and as a result very slowly begins to see how she might become “a braver and steadier Misskaella”. But there’s plenty more crap she has to go through before she gets there, and that she becomes a savage, greedy old witch is tragic, but no surprise – sometimes a person cannot rise above the cruelty that’s dealt them.
There’s plenty of casual cruelty dished out over the course of the story, powered by greed, desire, jealousy and resentment, as well as by Misskaella’s thirst for revenge against the community that spurned her for what she reminded them of and for what she might become (thus turning her into the very thing they most feared). And while no one is portrayed in a very good light, men get particularly short shrift. As soon as the first quiet, beautiful, pliable selkie sets foot on the island all the men, married or not, turn into idiots. That it is an enchantment they have little power to resist doesn’t pardon any of them for their actions (because it is never okay to keep a naked woman in a cupboard, guys, alright?) and I spent Bet Winch and Dominic Mallett’s portions of the book seething, yet unable to look away.
Fortunately, sometimes children surpass their parents. The boys born to the selkie mothers prove themselves more capable of compassion than their fathers (although it still takes two suicides for the lads to sit up and realise their mothers are unhappy), and work to undo Misskaella’s magic. Some of the most beautiful writing in the whole book is here, as Dominic’s son Daniel tells of his time as a seal, completely free of all the thinking and feeling required of human beings. Upon his return to land and man-shape all the men of Rollrock are changed. Grief and loneliness, and perhaps thoughtfulness, has transformed them. There is the quietly hopeful suggestion at the end of the book that human women might be valued again on Rollrock.
But, Misskaella was never happy. Despite the potential she sensed within herself; despite the power she wielded over the people of Rollrock and all the sorrow she brought down on their heads; despite all the worldly goods she acquired and packed into her big, fancy house until it was so full she couldn’t fit in herself; despite the strange little family she gathered to herself after the deaths of both her parents and most of her siblings; despite her private liaisons with her own, secret male-selkie; despite never needing a man to provide or care for her, Misskaella’s life was ultimately empty of meaning.
But, the reader has seen from Misskaella’s youth that this was not the first time someone has drawn the selkie women out of the sea; she herself is proof of it, and there are the rumours and the half-remembered stories she heard as she grew up also. And so even though these older, wiser, half-selkie Rollrock men may welcome energetic, practical human women back to the island, how long will it be before this bewildering mess of hurt and suffering occurs again? In the end all that really seems certain in this beautifully told story is that the selkie enchantment is powerful, and men and women alike are ever foolish.