Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge. All my AWWC reviews can be found here.

Sea Hearts (also published as The Brides of Rollrock Island in the US and UK) by Australian author Margo Lanagan is a powerful exploration of the dynamics of a closed community when put under (magically induced) stress.

After a brief prologue, the story opens from the perspective of a young girl, Misskaella, who is growing up in a small village on Rollrock Island. Unloved and unliked by family and neighbour alike, she grows to resent her whole village. When she discovers she has the ability to draw out selkies from seals, who take the form of women with an unearthly beauty and a strong level of docility, she begins to exact a measure of revenge by accepting payment from men to get a sea-wife for them.

The remainder of the novel tells the story of the impact of that action on the community. It is told from multiple points of view over several generations. One of the effects of this technique was to give a great sense of the timescale over which the story is being told (in this way it was similar in effect to the recent collection Ishtar although over much shorter timeframes).

I struggled to understand the men of Rollrock Island. The desire for beautiful but docile women who keep house and are only in the relationship because they have no choice seems… well seems stupid. So there was a certain satisfaction in watching a society based on that premise slowly disintegrate, that form of relationship critiqued and found wanting. However, where the tale was most powerful was when it showed the impact of such imbalanced relationships on the children exposed to them.

The writing was very poetic and quite lovely. I’ve only read some of Ms Lanagan’s short stories before this, and this novel reinforced my impressions of an author who has a very strong mastery of language.

The structure of the book was very interesting. The changing points of view is a good vehicle for creating rich characters, none more so than the witch Misskaella. Essentially, the novel traces out the arc of her life, from young woman to dying crone but by showing her from different perspectives it allowed the reader a measure of sympathy for someone who otherwise risked being just another evil witch caricature. It lent the novel an air of tragedy instead of being a simple morality tale.

The exploration of the consequences of different forms of ill treatment was also compelling. From Misskaella’s treatment by her family and general community, which led to her revenge by introducing the sea wives, which led to unbalanced marital relationships, which led to tragic outcomes for children – the chain of consequences was profound. It made me want to be a little nicer to people around me.

This is not a novel that is strongly plotted in the traditional sense, more an exploration of character and community. Each part of the story told from a different perspective forms a mini-arc of its own (perhaps reflecting the novel’s origins, growing as it did from a World Fantasy Award winning novella in the X6 anthology from Coeur de Lion Publishing). The overarching story arc requires the reader to either track the fortunes of the whole community or the life of the witch Misskaella. Either unifying thread requires some very satisfying work on behalf of the reader to pull together. This is a story that I kept thinking about for a long time after finishing reading it.

There are hints of a more familiar world away from Rollrock Island, with mentions of London and other cities. These touches gave the story a sense of enchantment just out of reach of the “real” world which were quite effective.

This is a powerful and thought provoking piece of writing. Highly recommended.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Author: mark

A writer of speculative fiction and all round good egg. Well, mostly good. OK, sometimes good.

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