This week I’m recommending a novel by Australian author, Margo Lanagan. Don’t be put off by the fact that much of her work has been marketed as Young Adult fiction. I believe that Lanagan is one of the most interesting  voices in contemporary Fantasy. `The Brides of Rollrock Island’ came out in 2012 but it developed from an award-winning novella called `Sea-Hearts’, first published in 2009. In some countries the novel is also known by this title. Under either name, you can get it as a paperback or an ebook. If there is a genre that is the opposite of Urban Fantasy, `The Brides of Rollrock Island’ belongs to it. Most of the novel is set on an isolated island where people keep to traditional ways and depend on the sea for a living. The exact location and time is left deliberately vague but the story draws on Gaelic folklore about seals. Have you ever seen a seal close-up? Their eyes look remarkably human, so it’s understandable that people used to believe in Selkies – seals that can take human form on land.

Lanagan likes to throw her readers in at the deep end and let them struggle to work out what’s going on, but I’ll offer a little help. `The Brides of Rollrock Island’ is a story told by six different narrators. The most important of these is Misskaella Prout. Misskaella grows up on the island of Rollrock as the youngest of a big family. She is soon made to realize that she is different from her handsome red-haired brother and sisters. Plump and plain Misskaella is a throwback to an ancestor who was rumoured to be a sea-bride – a woman who was once a seal. Misskaella discovers that she has an alarming affinity with the seals who visit the island’s beaches. Sick of being treated like a witch, Misskaella decides to act like one and demands a high price to transform a seal into an enchantingly beautiful bride for one of the islanders.

All the other men are envious and over the years Misskaella grows rich by selling them sea-brides. Some families flee from Rollrock but young men are drawn back to the island by the alluring prospect of perfect wives – lovely docile seal-girls who honour and obey their husbands and produce dutiful sons. It is one of those sons who comes to understand that something is terribly wrong. Idyllic Rollrock has become a place of sorrow as the sea-brides pine for their lost freedom. Is it possible to reverse Misskaella’s  enchantments? What terrible price must the islanders pay before things can be set right?

Lanagan has a wonderful way with words. She uses original phrases and striking images to conjure up the bleak island landscape (`The sea was grey with white dabs of temper all over it; the sky hung full of ragged strips of cloud.’), its plants (`The kelps and dabberlocks lolled like shining tongues on the rocks,’), its wildlife (`the pearly-coated, blubber-bulk’ of seals) and its people (`He had changed from rambunctious, sneering boy to hulking, sulking young man,’). `The Brides of Rollrock Island’ has an unusual structure, being more like a collection of short stories than a novel. There is an over-arching plotline but the key-events are shown from female and male points of view through the eyes of six individuals: Misskaella, islanders, Bet Winch and Dominic Mallet, and then Misskaella’s chosen successor, Truddle, Bet’s daughter, Lory, and Dominic’s son, Daniel. Lanagan’s quirky prose and salty dialogue bring all these characters alive very quickly and none of them are conventional Fantasy heroes, heroines or villains. They are vulnerable people with understandable frustrations and longings and forgivable flaws.  All the narrators express their feelings in language that jolts the reader into paying attention. Daniel relates how `The bone’s rustling in the weed sent my boy-sacks up inside me like startled mice to their hole.’ while Miskaella sees her sisters’ healthy babies as looking `Like cream forced into sausage-skins.’

My one regret about this novel is that we don’t hear more of Misskaella’s distinctive voice. We are introduced to her as an old witch in the prologue. Island boys see her as a `dark lump’ knitting seaweed blankets with a bone hook. She has `the face of our night-horrors, white and creased, and greedy’ and a `voice that would tear tinplate’ yet the children know that Misskaella is sometimes `all sly and coaxy’ and `Sometimes all she does is sit and cry.’ When Misskaella gets to tell her own story we discover that she has a lot to cry about. She describes herself as an `unhappy pudding’ teased and bullied by her siblings, belittled and exploited by her mother, and mistrusted by the older islanders who fear the power she has inherited. The young men ignore Misskaella and court the slim and pretty girls  (just as the publishers ignore Lanagan’s bulky witch and put a slender  young sea-bride on the cover) while the happiness that comes to her after a brief liaison with a seal-man is soon snatched away. No wonder Misskaella vows that all those girls `who curled their lip at me or wore their pity so loudly in their eyes and voices, they would know first-and-freashly the treatment I had always got from men, the scorn, the overlooking, the making invisible.’

In spite of their practical skills and strong characters, the ordinary women of Rollrock find that they cannot compete with the unearthly beauty and passive behaviour of the seal-girls. What husband would want an imperfect human wife with a mind and a temper and cares of her own when he could have a sea-bride who is like a doll and will let him do whatever he wants? As Dominic puts it when he sees his bride to be, `This girl only waited, her whole being, her whole future, fixed on me.’ Thus far, the plot sounds rather like a folklore version of `The Stepford Wives’ but in traditional stories the supernatural bride always longs to return to her original form (see my July 2013 post on `The Crane Wife’). Lanagan deepens her novel by showing how much the seal-girls miss the underwater world where they could be their true selves. They try to comfort themselves with seaweed blankets and pathetic collections of shells and seaworn pebbles but even their devoted sons can’t console `the Mams’ for what they have lost. As one of the boys says, `Rollrock lads are only happy for as long as we’re too little to see that we oughtn’t to be happy’.

Does `The Brides of Rollrock Island’ fall into the category of `Paranormal Romance’ ? There is a great deal of passion in the story, including a tender love scene between Misskaella and the seal-man who makes her feel lovable for the first time, but much of the book could be seen as a warning against an over-Romantic view of life in which females are confined to playing the roles of idealized wives and mothers. The novel ends on a hopeful note as the younger generation seem to avoid the mistakes of their elders, but there is more than a hint that if they forget what they have learned, dark times will return to Rollrock Island and all the commmunities like it. Until next week…