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Friday, February 03, 2012

SEA HEARTS By Margo Lanagan, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2012



If, like me, you’ve grown up on Celtic folk-tales, you’ll be familiar with the story of the human male who gets himself an otherworldly bride. With a few exceptions, it’s really only in modern YA paranormals, that it’s the other way around.

Basically, there are two kinds: there’s the one where she’s the daughter of a king of the otherworld, whether it’s the sea or Faerie, and the one where she’s a selkie (seal-maiden) whose skin is stolen while she’s dancing around in human form. There is always a condition – the groom has to promise not to ask her certain questions, not to hit her without cause (Welsh - The Physicians of Myddfai), not to see what she gets up to on Saturdays (Melusine, who is, in theory, the ancestress of the British royal family) or he has to keep her sealskin hidden because once she finds it, she’ll grab it and go home, even leaving her children by her land husband. Invariably, the husband breaks the contract, mostly by accident, and loses his wife and any wealth she brought with her.

This novel asks, yes, but what happens generations later when there are descendants of those seal maidens in a small community where presumably the gene pool is pretty small?

In the nineteenth century, Miskaella Prout is a girl none of the limited supply of men on the island of Rollrock wants to marry. After being treated as a minor goddess by the old folk and like dirt by everyone else, she discovers that she can actually draw girls out of the seals, without having to wait for them to drop their skins and dance in the moonlight. And those girls are absolutely gorgeous and better still, they’ll pretty much do as they’re told and go with the man who’s there when they emerge. This is a way not only to make a living but also to get revenge on all those other girls who managed to catch husbands.

It succeeds beyond her wildest dreams and Miskaella is rich, while the men all owe her money for their Stepford wives.

But the island’s culture changes, once the only girls left in town are seals – and unlike the Ira Levin robots, these women have emotions and can be unhappy…

The book is a series of connected novellas, told from the viewpoints of a number of characters including Miskaella herself. Despite this, there is still a twist at the end, when you realise that Miskaella didn’t tell you quite everything.

The writing is beautiful, your heart aches for those selkie girls and you can even understand why Miskaella is so bitter. It’s a fascinating take on the old folk tales, a wonderful, “What if...?”

Margo Lanagan is one of the best writers of literary spec fic around. Her writing is always beautiful and she creates characters you can care for, even if, like Miskaella, they’re ruining everyone else’s lives.

Damn, I wish I’d written this one.

9 comments:

Anthony Panegyres said...

Think I'll add it to my list.

Satima Flavell said...

Definitely on mine. I loved Tender Morsels and most of Margo's shorts.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Read it, guys. You won't regret it!

Sean said...

I so want to read the reviewer but I suspect that I will be receiving a review copy tomorrow. Have book marked the page for comment after I have read and reviewed.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'll be interested to see what you think. It's a terrific book, IMO. As someone who's read all. Those folk tales with silkies and otherworldly brides, I appreciated it all the more.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Drat that automatic prediction thingie on iPad. There's no full stop after " read" and it's selkies, not silkies. Must work out how to turn it off.

Sean said...

*review* obviously :)

Sue Bursztynski said...

I figured that's what you meant. ;-)

Stephanie said...

Oh, this sounds magnificent. I love Margo's work (I happened across her during her Black Juice days), and agree with you that she's one of the best spec fic authors around.

Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting