Book Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
I’ve been a bit in awe of Margo Lanagan ever since reading her story collection Black Juice. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have an aversion to short stories; no matter how well written, I get antsy and never quite make it through an entire book of stories, at least not without a lot of hair-pulling. Not so with Black Juice; I was captivated, start to finish, by the author’s language and the mood she creates. The lead story in Black Juice, “Singing My Sister Down”, has to be one of the saddest and most matter-of-factly tragic stories I’ve ever encountered. There’s also a very odd story told from the perspective of elephants, but that’s okay… it was weird but it worked.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of The Brides of Rollrock Island for some months now, and was delighted to finally get my hands on a copy. The verdict? In short, well worth the wait.
The Brides of Rollrock Island is a novel — which often feels more like a collection of linked stories — about the odd lives of the people of windswept, sea-battered Rollrock Island. Generations gone by, legend has it, the men of the island would take sea-wives, women called forth from the sea, leaving behind their true forms as seals in order to live and love among men. Children grow up hearing whispers of these lovely women, but it’s so long ago as to be remembered only by the great-grandparents among the town.
Into this small, isolated island community is born a homely little girl named Misskaella, youngest daughter of the rather large Prout family. Misskaella is valued by no one, considered odd and ugly, and grows up realizing that the men and women of the island either scorn or pity her. Yet Misskaella has one thing that no one else does — the magic to call to the seals. Misskaella revives the island’s past by bringing forth a sea-wife for one young man of the town. The woman is ethereally beautiful — graceful, slender, with large dark eyes and silky black hair. By comparison, the other women of Rollrock appear frowzy and rough. The men are enchanted, and bit by bit, the island is emptied as the womenfolk, deserted in favor of the sea-wives, leave the island. The men of Rollrock shower Misskaella with treasures and provide her with a place of honor in the town, and in return, she makes sure that they have lovely sea-wives to marry and to provide them with sons.
The men and boys treat their women (the mams, as the boys call them) with veneration and tender care, never losing their fascination with the women’s gentle beauty and fragility. And the women love their husbands and sons, without doubt, yet they pine for the sea and the world that they lost.
Did Misskaella bless the men of Rollrock Island with true love? Or did she exact a torturous revenge upon all the island folks by gifting them with love that must inevitably lead to pain?
It’s hard to describe just how strange and beautiful is the language of The Brides of Rollrock Island. Margo Lanagan’s words twist and cut, caress and murmur. She evokes the crash of the sea, the pervasive smell of the ocean air, the natural wonders of the island and the sea:
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.
Ms. Lanagan use the first person plural throughout; the narrative is full of what “we” did and how “we” felt, creating with the very words a sense of tight-knit community and insularity. Her odd vernacular seems particularly suited to this island of outcasts and loners, and her writing creates its own spell throughout the book.
The Brides of Rollrock Island is not a typical romance or fantasy, not a supernatural love story or thriller. This is a book of magical power and grace, of tragedy and sorrow as well as love, filled with lyrical writing unlike most anything on bookstore shelves today. Don’t miss it.