Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts (Allen & Unwin 2012)
Some years ago I was waiting at traffic lights in Sydney’s Haymarket when I recognised Margo Lanagan walking across the street in front of me. Her slightly abstracted air could have been a sign that she was planning that night’s dinner, but I like to believe she was busily conjuring up the seal-women of Rollrock Island, imagining one standing naked and unspeakably desirable in the main street of Potshead Village, or another hurling herself desperately into the ocean, or perhaps the witch Misskaella Prout hardening her heart against the fully-human men and women who have scorned her, or someone in ‘the grunt and urge and song and flight and slump of seal-being’.
Lanagan’s previous book, Tender Morsels, was a sometimes harrowing retelling of the Grimms’ ‘Rose Red and Snow White’. In Sea Hearts she takes on selkie lore in which seals become human and take human lovers/spouses, generally with tragic results – pretty much a mirror image of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Forsaken Merman’, in which a human woman has temporarily become a mermaid.
The story unfolds in seven chapters, each told from a different point of view – man, woman and child. A long early chapter belongs to the young Misskaella Prout, who is teased because she is different. We learn along with her that she is a throwback to a time when the men of her island married women who had been magically transformed from seals. Her difference is not only in appearance, but in powers to harness magic, and having at first resisted she eventualy reaches a point where, in grief and bitter resentment, she uses her power to transform a seal into a woman with long dark hair and slender limbs, far more beautiful than the redheaded, work-worn human women of the island. The men are enchanted, and soon the island community is transformed. To the next generation of children, mothers – ‘mams’ – who ‘came from the sea’ are the norm.
But all is not well. Though their transformation includes falling compliantly in love with their human males, and though they are universally loving mothers, the seal-women never cease grieving for their lost life in the sea (none of the chapters speaks from a seal-mam’s point of view – we never see inside their heads, but we see their deep sorrow). Unless they have access to the skins they shed when first transformed they can never return to their original form, and the men make sure those skins are locked securely away.
So far, Lanagan has played very straight with the lore. Her prose is clear and fluent. Every development, every aspect of the world is revealed through action. The characters are all sympathetic: we understand the desire of the men, the rage of the human women, the compliance and the grief of the seal-women, the mixture of genuine love and underlying coercion in the families of the island, even Misskaella’s dark resolve. There are plenty of twists, but also a fairy-tale sense that these things happen as they must and consequences will follow as they are meant to. It’s a tightly-constructed, engrossing, vivid, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant retelling, with a feminist sensibility – there’s no doubt that patriarchy is alive and well on Rollrock Island, but no need to get strident about it, and in spite of it all men are not the enemy.
It’s in the long chapter told from the point of view of Daniel Mallett, son of a seal-woman, that the book shakes things up. Suddenly the children – the sons, I should say, because the daughters are a whole other, heartbreaking story – become key players. There’s a marvellous moment when Daniel, who has long been accustomed to dealing with his mother when the miseries are upon her by offering in an artificially bright voice to rub her feet or get her a cup of tea, finally understands the situation and realises that he can help, and speaks to her ‘not lightly or cheeringly’ – and everything changes.
The northern-hemisphere title of the book is The Brides of Rollrock Island. The Mams of Rollrock Island would have been better.