Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

An island where men prefer selkies over human wives is the setting for Margo Lanagan's atmospheric new novel, The Brides of Rollrock Island. Enchantment subverts the natural order and takes a hard toll on the entire community.

The tale unfolds in a leisurely way though a series of interconnected first-person stories, spanning several generations. The characters are thus explored from various angles, starting with the central figure, Misskaella the witch. We first meet her through the fearful eyes of a young boy, Daniel Mallett, who nearly wets himself when he must pass by her old form as she knits blankets out of seaweed on the beach. (Lanagan tantalizes with details like this; the reader must wait to discover the why of this unusual craft.) The next tale flips the perspective 180 degrees to Misskaella Prout's point of view, beginning with her difficult childhood. I immediately felt sympathetic.

Rollrock Island feels as real as the people who live there. This is from the opening page, in Daniel's voice:
"And down the cliff we went. It was a poisonous day. Every now and again the wind would take a rest from pressing us to the wall, and try to pull us off it instead. We would grab together and sit then, making a bigger person's weight that it could not remove. The sea was gray with white dabs of temper all over it; the sky hung full of ragged strips of cloud."

I recommend The Brides of Rollrock Island to adults and teens who enjoy magical stories, legends retold, a vivid sense of place, well-developed characters, and a plot that frames moral questions. It certainly has dark undertones, but it isn't as harrowing as Lanagan's Tender Morsels.

Readalikes: Snake Ropes (Jess Richards); The Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater); Chime (Franny Billingsley).

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