On remote Rollrock Island, men make their living–and fetch their wives–from the sea.
The Witch Misskaella knows how to find the girl at the heart of a seal. She’ll coax a beauty from the beast for any man, for a price. And what man wouldn’t want a sea-wife, to and to hold, and to keep by his side forever?
But though he may tell himself that he is the master, one look in his new bride’s eyes will transform him just as much as it changes her. Both will be ensnared–and the witch will look on, laughing.
In this magical, seaswept novel, Margo Lanagan tells an extraordinary tale of desire, despair, and transformation. With devastatingly beautiful prose, she reveals characters capable of unspeakable cruelty, but also of unspoken love.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from this one, my final mermaid book of 2012. The summary is suitably vague, so I wasn’t sure how this one would come out in the end. And I loved it. The book is broken up into six parts, different points of view, but that isn’t at all distracting. In each section, you get a bit more of Rollrock Island’s nautical history told. Misskaella’s section is the longest and my personal favorite section. The mermaid mythology is so unique in this one, with a twist I’ve never seen before, that it adds this almost grotesque feel to the whole thing. I was fascinated the entire time reading about Misskaella and her sisters, and her family’s not so secret shame. Misskaella is mistreated by her family and her entire town, because she is most obviously descended from the seal-folk. Misskaella finally tires of all the abuse, and does something rather extreme. I loved it, of course. This book is so angsty.
Misskaella begins selling her services, using magic to produce wives for the men of Rollrock, to punish both the women who were so cruel and the men who never looked Misskaella’s way. The rest of the book, and the first chapter, shows the aftermath of Misskaella’s “gifts.” The lure of the seal-woman is too strong for what seems like most men, leading them to hide women from their wives and children. Eventually the story unfolds to show a new Rollrock, one in which the Mams are from the sea. Misskaella is eventually the only one of the old tribe left. She’s pretty insane and kind of evil in the rest of the novel, all grown up, and I halfway delight in her, and half feel sorry for her. Her “gift” upon the men of Rollrock, however, is really more like a nightmare, snaring men and driving out native women until the entire island is full of these mams with stick-straight black hair and big luminous eyes. Dominic Mallet’s mam was the last of the land-born, and her caution did not stop her son from finding his own seal-woman.
One thing I noticed is that these sea-women don’t seem to give birth to human females. All the children on the island appear to be male, something confirmed in Dominic’s son’s story. And as Daniel’s story continues, a darker thread is shown. These women on Rollrock are born of seals; they shed their skin when Misskaella works her magic on them. The skins must be hidden, or the mams will return to the sea. So, in effect, the dads of Rollrock are holding their wives captive on the island. This story is very dark, and delves a lot into the worst of human nature. This is what I always meant by a “dark mermaid novel,” where not only is the magic monstrous but the romances are miseries as well. Happiness is only partially achievable on Rollrock Island. And when you think it can’t get worse, it does. For all their big-eyed innocence, the brides of Rollrock are unhappy with their lot in life.
Man, you guys, I liked this one, which is funny, because I was dreading this as the last mermaid book of the year, none of the previous ones being what I wanted from this tiny subgenre. There is doom in the end pages, and you can’t help but think history might repeat itself. This one is definitely one of my favorite books of 2012, so get out there and buy this one–just don’t expect a happy ending.