A vibrant and imaginative fable of magic and tragedy.

Sea hearts are a type of shellfish that children gather for their mothers along the blustery shores of Rollrock Island:

Some folk ate the best hearts raw, particularly mams; they drank up the liquor inside, and if there was more than one mam there they would exclaim how delicious it was, and if not they would go quiet and stare away from everyone. If it was only dads there, they would say to each other, ‘I cannot see the attraction, myself …’

And so we enter a world at once familiar and strange, where men marry women magicked out of the bodies of seals.  The legend of the selkie is an old one, said to originate in remote parts of Scotland and Ireland: a beautiful woman emerges from a seal to enchant a mortal man; if the besotted man is to keep her, he must hide her seal-skin, otherwise she will return to the sea, which she craves.

Lanagan has won a number of World Fantasy Awards and has said that the ‘sense of a fantastical tale being firmly anchored in an utterly believable real-world setting is something I’m often trying for’.  This is true of the world she has created in Sea Hearts: the little fishing community of Rollrock could easily be on one of the islands of the Outer Hebrides. Red hair is common, and the inhabitants’ speech has a Celtic lilt to it. The time could be the 19th century – electricity is a recent novelty in the mainland town of Cordlin.

Margo Lanagan is also known for novels that cross the categories of young adult and adult fiction, and Sea Hearts is one such. The novel is told through a series of different voices, including children who play key roles in the story: the child Daniel Mallet; Misskaella Prout the witch; Bet Winch, wife and mother; Dominic Mallet, Daniel’s father; and so on, each adding a fresh dimension to the story.

But it is the life of Misskaella that is the story’s pivot.  As a very small child Miskaella discovers an uncanny affinity with the seals that gather on the island’s beaches.  She is the youngest of her family, and an ugly duckling.  Her sense of difference is confirmed dramatically for her when, at the age of nine, she realises that she can see things her siblings cannot:

I woke one day to find everything stretched and reaching, as if the world were a pot on the boil, and someone had taken its lid off and let the steam pour up wildly.  I must be ill, I thought, but I felt no pain, no turmoil of my stomach, and I could get up and move about much as I always did.  No one else seemed to notice how high or heightened everything had gone, how the essence of things rushed and flapped in my heart.  My sisters chattered among themselves as usual, cried at me to hurry along.

Her fascination with the seals becomes frightening when she finds them gathered around the family’s front gate, apparently waiting for her.  Eventually, she learns to control her unusual talents and, in so doing, to take her revenge on the townsfolk who have teased and mocked her.

It is Misskaella who first conjures a woman from the sea, and then takes a fee from an infatuated townsman to bring him a bride of his own.  And so Rollrock becomes a community where the men take sea wives, at first furtively, then openly.  Their human wives leave for the mainland, taking their children with them.

It’s clear that this is not the first time such things have happened on the island. Misskaella carries the blood of the sea wives within her, even though she is born into a ‘normal’ family. And it is through her that the cycle is able to repeat once again: the seals’ desire to transform, the men’s desire to possess them.

The sea wives are exceptional creatures – as Miskaella tells the townsmen at one point, ‘You have the most beautiful wives in the world’. From their scent, ‘like a summer sea’, to their looks: pale and long-limbed, with slender curves and sleek black hair falling to their thighs, voluptuously full lips and dark eyes.  Not to mention the charm of their devotion: they accept their husbands without judgement. There is sensuality and affection in the relationships between the wives and the men – but it is undercut by the wives’ longing to return to the sea.

There are many resonances in this novel – not least the Stepford-ish nature of the sea wives, compliant and lovingly attentive to their husbands. We see their grief, but we only hear their voices incidentally in the book. It is their actions that speak for them.

The story also resonates with the stereotype of older white men marrying young, pretty and compliant Asian wives.  The connection is reinforced on the cover of the Australian edition, which features the beautiful face of an Asian woman. Interestingly, the UK edition not only has a different title – The Brides of Rollrock Island – but features a slender, dark-haired but definitely European woman on the cover.

In this context the novel raises unsettling questions about male desire – are beauty and compliance all men want? The men of Rollrock pay a high price in more ways than one for their wives, but willingly succumb to the enchantment. And why is a woman – the witch Misskaella – providing for them? Is the legend of the selkie a warning against miscegenation?  An injunction to stick with your own kind? Or is it a broader warning against upsetting the natural order?

At its heart, this is a novel that questions the nature of love. Can it be love, if the beloved is forced to stay?  In hiding the sea wives’ skins, the men are shackling the women to them as surely as if they had put them in irons.  That the men see this, but do not stop it, should make us condemn them completely.  That we don’t is a measure of Lanagan’s success in this finely wrought, disturbing novel.

Margo Lanagan Sea Hearts Allen & Unwin 2012 PB 360pp $19.99

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