Rollrock island is a lonely rock of gulls and waves, blunt fishermen and their homely wives. Life is hard for the families who must wring a poor living from the stormy seas. But Rollrock is also a place of magic – the scary, salty-real sort of magic that changes lives forever. Down on the windswept beach, where the seals lie in herds, the outcast sea witch Misskaella casts her spells – and brings forth girls from the sea – girls with long, pale limbs and faces of haunting innocence and loveliness – the most enchantingly lovely girls the fishermen of Rollrock have ever seen.
But magic always has its price. A fisherman may have and hold a sea bride, and tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into those wide, questioning, liquid eyes, he will be just as transformed as she is. He will be equally ensnared. And in the end the witch will always have her payment.
Rating: 3.8 out of 5
Aside from the story itself, much of my enjoyment in reading a book lies with how carried away I get by the mood of the story, as well as my connection to the characters. In this case, the book did not deliver on that last point for me, which is why I can’t quite bring myself to give it a 4, but neither does it deserve just a 3. For a while, it was a bit difficult for me to pinpoint just how I feel about this exactly. While I was enthralled by Rollrock Island, I couldn’t quite find myself identifying with any of the characters. I felt very much like an outsider looking in, witnessing the story of Rollrock from a safe distance. In a way that is how you would want it, after reading this twisted tale.
Technically speaking there isn’t really anything wrong with this book.It has all the markings of a novel that is just my thing. The story itself is quite intriguing and unique, told through the eyes and distinct voices of several characters in a span of several generations. It starts in the present and jumps back to where it all began until it comes full circle and back to the present. The narrative was eloquent, with a language that flows naturally as the differing streams of thought of each character is explored.
I found myself being whisked into this world where every moment was spent in a melancholic stupor; watching out for any tragic event about to happen thanks to that feeling of doom that constantly hung about. This book is beautifully written, but mostly it’s a sad sad story about the fickleness and shallowness of human nature. I literally had moments when I absolutely loathed the characters. These ill feelings turned into pity as I watched the people on Rollrock commit mistake after mistake, waiting for that moment when all their ideas of a perfect world would finally collapse on them. And very badly it did.
It was not difficult for me to suspend my disbelief no matter how far-fetched this story was now that I think about it. The novel did an amazing job setting up the lore of the seal-women. Even though I didn’t get an explanation as to how it was possible for beautiful women to be born out of seals (or where they came from and where they go or how they give birth to more seals containing humans inside), I felt like it was just right for the selkies to remain a mystery as it went with the overall mysterious and eerie mood of the book. All we know is that it was possible for the selkies to live on land and give birth to human-looking children in their human form.
Lanagan did an especially great job showing us the cause and effect of everything that happened within the novel– from the reasons why the witch Miskaella finds joy in toying with the lives of those who ridiculed and wronged her growing up, to the long-term effect her meddling had to the lives of the present and future generations of Rollrock. The novel explored how people often fall into the trap of their own lavish and sometimes illogical desires; how even someone’s conscience is no match for their lust. It showed with such force the lengths at which some people will go to attain the things they want, in the process weaving a very complicated web. Eventually when this web begins to unravel, who is to take the blame?
What struck me most about the story was the fact that you can’t really point to a specific villain or hero. It’s like all the people in Rollrock made a pact to do something unnatural together such that it became the absolute norm. In that sense it stopped being wrong and began being the only accepted and expected path to take. Though the tale is told through just a few points of view, these views represented each affected party among those living in Rollrock. Lanagan effectively related why men cannot resist the lure of the seal-women; and then there is the constant torn feeling among the women to return to the sea or to stay with their children on land. The children who begin as innocents eventually are thrown into this tug of war as well, and as it is in the real world, they are the ones who get hurt the most from the actions of the adults. From the narration of each character we see the effect of this magic Miskaella has brought upon Rollrock, and yet she is as much at fault for what Rollrock has become as the men are for asking her to bring forth wives from the sea.
This book spoke to me about how sometimes people end up following a cycle of things which may not necessarily be good, but there is always a chance to break it once they come to realize the error of falling into it. Granted the way they come their senses might involve some cruel circumstances, but no matter how much the human life is filled with grief and mistakes, it is also full of hope, resilience, and renewal.