Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts/ The Brides of Rollrock Island

The copy I have is titled The Brides of Rollrock Island. I refer to the book by this name below as a result, but I much, much prefer the title that doesn’t sound like it just married Kate Winslet.

A version of last weekend’s column:


Margo Lanagan’s last novel, Tender Morsels generated some controversy for its unflinching and often stomach-turning depictions of rape and incest, particularly since it was in many places marketed as a young adult novel. Tender Morsels was a take on the Snow White and Rose Red story; Lanagan’s most recent novel takes its premise from the selkie myth.

Sea Hearts, also published as The Brides of Rollrock Island, tells of a small island often visited by seals. Local legend has it that these seals can occasionally be transformed into human women, and that a number of those who live on the island have seal-blood in them.

One such resident of the island is Misskaella, a young girl with ‘seal-magic’. She has the power to draw forth women from the seals, a power she is willing to exercise for the men of the island for an exorbitant fee. For the ‘sea-wives’ thus obtained are beautiful and docile; nothing like the individual, flawed, assertive women who otherwise live on the island. Over the book’s seven sections, told by different narrators, we piece together a partial history of the island over two generations. As more and more men succumb to the temptation of Misskaella’s sea-wives the human women leave, until the island is entirely populated by human men and seal women. The sea-wives alone cannot leave this place; though they pine for the sea, the men have hidden their sealskins so that they cannot revert to their original forms.

Particularly in the chapters narrated by Daniel Mallet, a child of one such union, what Lanagan offers us is a portrayal of a community built entirely upon gendered violence. The sea-wives have been forcibly ripped from their natural bodies and habitat to live with men whom they did not choose and whom they cannot escape. The adult men are all party to the conspiracy that keeps their wives’ skins hidden, that keeps their wives entrapped in human form. Everyone but the children is fully aware of the deep wrongness that lies at the heart of this situation, yet the men continue to pay for wives, and to attempt to build family and community over what is essentially rape.

Lanagan manages not to present the men of the community as entirely evil, though what they’re doing clearly is. They are criminally weak as is Dominic Mallet, who is ‘forced’ to take a sea-wife despite having a life and a fiancée on the mainland. For men like Dominic the sea-wives represent another way of life – something calmer and deeper than the rapidly modernising world around them. Caught up in the beauty and romance of that ideal, it seems, they are able to (mostly) forget that their wives are unwilling captives and that their marital bliss is someone else’s rape and imprisonment.

It’s the sons (daughters of sea-wives, being unable to live on land, become seals themselves) who piece things together, and who have the moral courage to put an end to it. Lanagan captures the bewilderment of the child who comes to realise that what he holds most dear is built on a foundation of ugliness. She leaves open the question of whether the boys could still have done this had they been old enough to claim sea-wives themselves. The wives are released from their bondage and return to the sea – taking their sons with them and leaving the men grieving but the community cleansed.

Over all this Misskaella towers; a sinister figure in the eyes of many (and who would not want a convenient scapegoat for this situation) but also wounded and -when the sea-wives finally abandon their men- triumphant. We’re never allowed to see her as anything other than deeply human, and there’s a vicarious pleasure (and does that mean the reader is implicated in her crimes, including those against other women?) in her victory over the community that has rejected her. The Brides of Rollrock Island is messy and complex and horrifying because gendered relationships can be all of those things, but it’s also quite wonderful.


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