Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

by - March 25, 2012

As part of the 2012 AWW Challenge, I wanted to choose a book in a genre I don’t usually read. The Brides of Rollrock Island is Young Adult Fantasy, two genres I don’t often read.

I have to admit I picked this book purely because of the title and the cover, both of which intrigued me.

Misskaella Prout is a witch living on Rollrock Island. She has a special connection with the seals that visit the island. The other islanders shun her, but everything changes when the men realise she has the power to turn seals into humans, and not just any humans, but beautiful, bewitching women. Every man hungers to have one of these seal-women for himself, happy to pay whatever price the witch demands. Even married men desert their human wives and children, forgetting them as soon as they leave the island. Soon the island is inhabited only by the men and their sea-wives, and Misskaella, who grows ever richer.

But the sea-wives are unhappy. They long to return to the sea in their seal forms but cannot because their husbands have locked away their seal coats. The sea-wives bear the men children, but only the sons are kept. The daughters don’t thrive on the land and must be returned to the sea to be reared by the seals. The witch knits blankets out of sea weed, which the sea-wives use to comfort themselves. The sons collect sea hearts, their mams’ favourite food from the sea. Eventually the unhappiness of the sea-wives grows too much, and everyone must pay the price.

Ms Lanagan’s writing is lush and evocative, and the images her prose conjured were powerful and haunting. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the story as much. This was such a dark and disturbing tale with a rather uncomfortable subtext. I really felt for the unhappy and lamenting sea-wives. Their trapped existence moved me, but at times I wished they would be more proactive. The husbands, although they are enchanted by their wives, don’t seem too bothered by their growing unhappiness, and ultimately it is left to the boys of these sea-wives to act on their behalf.

Although this wasn’t a story for me, I was impressed by Ms Lanagan’s skill in telling it. Readers who like dark, fractured fairytales will enjoy this book.

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