‘Why would I? People are uneasy enough with me – if I start bringing up sea-wives, they’ll take against me good and proper.’
‘It could be secret.’
On remote Rollrock Island, the sea-witch Misskaella discovers she can draw a girl from the heart of a seal. So, for a price, any man might buy himself a bride; an irresistibly enchanting sea-wife. But what cost will be borne by the people of Rollrock – the men, the women, the children – once Misskaella sets her heart on doing such a thing?
Margo Lanagan is an internationally acclaimed writer of novels and short stories. Her first collection, Black Juice, won two World Fantasy Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Award for Young Adult Fiction. Her second collection, Red Spikes, won the CBCA Book of the Year: Older Readers. Her novel Tender Morsels won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.
Margo Lanagan’s wonderfully imaginative and lyrical novel creates a world that seems half-familiar: wild Rollrock Island, from which the original bold red-headed women have disappeared and in their place are the quiet, dark and slender seal-wives, the women whom the witch Misskaella has drawn by magic, fully grown, from the hearts of seals to please the bewitched men of the island. Unlike the human wives they have replaced, these seal-women are submissive, obedient and always sexually compliant. But Misskaella’s magic has been a form of revenge for the way she was treated by men when she was young; over the years, the seal-wives produce children who of course are also not fully human, and when their mothers begin to pine for their old lives and their true home, the hybrid chickens come home to roost.
This book is classified as fantasy for a ‘Young Adult’ or ‘Crossover’ readership, but it transcends any such attempt to pigeonhole it; it’s not really mainstream fantasy, and it’s a compelling read for adults, full of ideas about human desire and human weakness that are deeply woven into the fabric of the story. Lanagan uses the old Scottish, Irish and Icelandic myth of the selkies, the magical shape-changing creatures who were seals in the water and humans on the land, to write a story that is among other things a feminist fable about the inherent inequality in the traditional notion of a desirable marriage, and an exploration of what happens to a society over time when it’s cut off from the rest of the world.