Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island is a haunting and lyrical blend of folklore and fairy tale. Drawing on stories of the selkies - beings who are half-human, half-seal - it explores the ramifications of this myth in human (and selkie) terms. Lanagan's prose is subtle and powerful; her dissection of the human psyche is merciless. It is a testament to Lanagan's masterful storytelling instincts that she narrates this tale from multiple first-person perspectives, thus neatly side-stepping crude good/evil, male/female, human/selkie dichotomies. And yet, in not assigning a first person perspective to any of the sea women or men, she reserves a space for their irresolvable otherness that it their source of fascination among this island community.
The selkie myth is common to Scottish, Irish, Icelandic and Faroese folklore. While details differ from culture to culture, the basic tenet of the myth describes seals who assume human form on dry land. A selkie maiden can be taken for a wife and even bear children for her husband. However, her yearning for the sea runs deep and she can only be kept on dry land for as long as he can manage to keep her seal skin from her. Many explorations of the selkie myth explore the theme of star-crossed lovers who attempt to bridge the gap between their land and sea based cultures. What makes Lanagan's offering to the genre unusual is that it is profoundly unromantic.
The sea-wives, or 'Mams' as they are introduced to us by the boys of the island, are beautiful and unusually compliant young women. In essence, they are the perfect thalassic Stepford Wives. When Able Marten convinces the witch Misskaella to create a wife for him, he inspires the envy of all of the other men on the island. The arrival of a sea-wife falls like a spell on the islanders and soon they all want one. As a consequence of her magic, a trail of jilted wives are driven from the island by the presence of these enchanting creatures. However, despite the best efforts of their husbands and offspring, the sea-wives cannot be comforted. They are captive women who yearn always for their return to the sea, and, if possible, to take their cross-species children back with them.
Misskaella, as the scorned and unloved island outcast, is happy to separate the spell-struck men from their money and sow the seed of misery among the islanders. Misskaella may be the source of Rollrock misery, but Rollrock has certainly been the source of her own youthful suffering. The question of free will is also raised by this story. The men, who are not always unsympathetic, seem genuinely under an enchantment that drives them from their loved ones, regardless of the traumatic emotional fallout. It is interesting in this regard that Lanagan introduces a single male character who resists the lure of the sea-wives and takes a land woman for his wife. Is Daniel Mallett an exception to the rule or do the men of Rollrock choose their own fate? The uncertainty here enhances the story immensely. Ambiguity is a watchword in this multiple-perspective narrative that explores the dark yearnings of the human psyche.
Something I enjoyed about the structuring of this book is that the coming of the sea-wives seems to follow a cyclical pattern. The island witch, Misskaella Prout, remembers whispered tales of seal women from her childhood, tales that shape her own creation of these sea-wives from the seals on the beach at Crescent Corner. The Brides of Rollrock Island is a cautionary tale spanning generations of human fascination with their beloved sea-wives. The hopeful conclusion is provisional at best, carrying with it the threat of infinite recurrence.