Margo Lanagan’s Brides of Rollrock Island began its life as one story among several in the collection Sea-Hearts. Now it is expanded and the results are wondrous. With the most beautiful prose, Margo Lanagan transports us to an island, a little timeless, on which men live with their silky-haired, large-eyed wives. There are no daughters, just boys, all of whom love their graceful mams, and this relationship between the men of the island and their enchanting women gives life to the heart of this novel.
The men of the island have turned their backs on the local red-haired fiery, spirited women. Instead, Misskaella, the island’s sea-witch, has offered each of them the gift of naming the women that she can draw out from their seal skins. The price is great, huge debt ensues, but the prize is a non-questioning and loving wife who, deprived of her locked away sealskin, is unable to leave the land and her man. These women have to suffer the double pain of losing their seal children and their human daughters. Their husbands are too enraptured to help but their sons are a different matter.
The Brides of Rollrock Island is told by a succession of different narrators, covering two or three generations and regularly referring backwards. The most dominant figure on the island is Misskaella who has ensnared the husbands and terrified the sons. But this menacing witch who knits seaweed on the beach has her own story and this forms a substantial part of the tale. This is one of the true strengths of the novel. The witch we see later on, ugly and predatory, was once a young girl we empathised with, the smallest daughter among many in a family that loved her. But from the moment that she discovered that she could charm seals from the seas, she couldn’t live a normal life again. We see both – the young and the old – and that brings another very human dimension to a tale of witches, seals and enthralled men.
The island is timeless. There is little reference to events or things that could date it. It could also be anywhere. The red-haired women on the mainland know about the men on the island – it doesn’t seem much of a secret – and the sons are accepted as being part land part sea. While some men stay true to the red-haired women, the majority have no power to resist at all. The problem is, though, that Misskaella has warned them all of the high price they must pay, and this doesn’t necessarily refer to money.
The language of The Brides of Rollrock Island is beautiful. The stories are distinct but flow from one to the other. The selkies are enchanting but the human women are full of life. There are moments of wonder here – the boys swimming through the sea, forgetting their human lives, to name just one. Despite the heartache, the worry and the loss, one abiding feeling to emerge from The Brides of Rollrock Island is the power for love.