I have always been fascinated by the origin stories of evil sorceresses – what were they like when they were young? Is there perhaps a traumatic event that, while it does not justify their villainous behavior, may go some way towards explaining it? Fairy tales retold are usually a good place to find such stories, and over the years I’ve read about Rapunzel’s jailor, the Wicked Witch of the West, the witches from Hamlet, and a truckload of other witches. The legend of the selkie – the seal who turns into a beguiling young woman when she sheds her skin – is not strictly speaking a fairy tale, nor is Misskaela strictly speaking a witch, but The Brides of Rollrock Island tells of how she comes to run a mail-order bride business for the men of the eponymous island. As you might imagine, she charges exorbitant rates. Speaking as a veteran of the wicked witch memoir genre, I can say with some authority that Misskaela’s deep dark personal trauma (TM) is the most heartbreaking, humanizing, and logical (vis-a-vis her subsequent actions) one I’ve ever encountered.
The book is narrated in first person by a succession of child narrators, some of whom reappear in later POVs, all of whom grow up on insular Rollrock Island where the primary economic activity is fishing. It’s a bit disorienting when you first slip into a POV because you’re floundering for a point of reference – what’s the relationship between this narrator and the previous one? How much time has elapsed? Children being children, they take things for granted that an adult might question, and they question the very things adults take for granted. Thus it takes some time to discern the peculiarity of the island’s social institutions. Then, too, there’s the language. Lanagan’s language is beautiful, but it’s terrifically Irish, in fact it’s rural turn-of-the-twentieth-century Irish, and as an American I blunder through the dialogue aided by a lot of guesswork. Her style, though. Her style makes me swoon. On a sentence level she pares out extraneous adverbs/adjectives with the result that it’s evocative without being bloated or flowery; on a scene level she has a gift for depicting moments of emotional intensity that pack a helluva punch.
So The Brides of Rollrock Island is about selkies, but since the only way to hang onto a selkie is to steal her skin and hide it, it’s about gender relations and how oppressive systems can be destructive for everyone involved – not just the victims but the oppressors too. Children are not innocent bystanders; on the contrary, they are assimilated by the system. If there’s a message that’s it that’s the message. And yet this isn’t a “smash the patriarchy” sort of story. I’m not sure what kind of story it is; all I know is that it’s a sad story.
For the men of Rollrock Island, the attraction of a sea-wife is not so much her ethereal beauty as her utter dependence on him. Physically, of course, she’s got to get accustomed to her new body, and when I read Lanagan’s descriptions of how these newborn girls have difficulty walking (especially wearing petticoats) it strikes me how women’s discomfort/insecurity with their bodies is exploited (possibly even created) by men. It suits men to have us perpetually dissatisfied with our bodies, because then they can set themselves up as the ultimate arbiters of whether we’re valuable (ie. attractive) or not. I am obviously not accusing individual men of perpetuating a vast misogynist conspiracy; these attitudes are institutional rather than individual. And Lanagan recognizes that. There’s a scene where the boy-narrator steals into the locked storeroom where the selkie skins are kept, and he realizes that what’s keeping them there is not the lock – which he jimmied open with ease – but the collective decision of every man on the island to take a selkie to wife. [HERE BE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT IT’S ALL SPOILERS] The courage that it takes this boy – eventually, all the other boys join him, all of them the product of human-selkie unions – to go against everything he’s been taught and free his mother and all the other mothers too, is beyond reckoning.
In the end the men of Rollrock Island are not monsters. Lanagan doesn’t let us off the hook that easily. She shows us, quite convincingly, what might entice a man to take up such a lifestyle. Dominic Mallet left the island when he was twelve. He’s engaged now to a lovely girl from the mainland, and he returns to Rollrock for the ostensible purpose of putting his parents’ affairs in order. (As soon as he decided to go back I was like LOL THIS WON’T END WELL.) So of course he meets (or Misskaela arranges for him to meet) a selkie woman on the beach, and here is him comparing her to his betrothed, Kitty:
No one, no man or woman, had ever regarded me so steadily, so trustingly. Kitty herself never looked at me this way; always her own next purposes and plans moved somewhere inherent eyes and readied words behind her lips. This girl only waited, her whole being, her whole future, fixed on me.
Like of COURSE he chooses this docile creature over a human girl who’s always going to have her own needs and desires. This one, the only thing she wants is to please him. She’s the fulfillment of the ultimate male fantasy – she’ll never say no to sex, never upbraid him for not pulling his weight with housework/childcare, never be hurt when he chooses to go out with his buddies instead of spending time with her. And what was Dominic doing down on the beach that night anyway? It’s hard to take seriously his later protestations to Kitty (he does the decent thing and goes to her house to break off the engagement in person) that it “just happened.” Kitty is like ok listen, this is not something that just “happened” to the two of us, this is something you did to me on purpose, and I will not absolve you of responsibility for it.
This is one of the moments I was talking about, this breakup scene – one of the moments of such emotional intensity that their clarity is blinding. I don’t think it would be fair to say that I liked The Brides of Rollrock Island. Or that I disliked it. I feel like, my feelings don’t really come into it? This book is perfect. I don’t mean “perfect” in the sense of good – I mean it creditably accomplishes everything it sets out to do. Done. Finito. Perfect.