I first encountered the selkie legend in the Irish-American film, The Secret of Roan Innish (Sayles 1994). The notion of seal brides all seemed terribly magical and romantic, if ultimately sad. Remembering this film was part of what attracted me to Sea Hearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island); I was intrigued to learn more about these curious brides who emerge from the sea to bear the children of men, only to become increasingly forlorn for their sea lives, land-bound as long as they are separated from their skins.
Reading Lanagan’s interpretation of the selkie legend, I found myself thinking about the origins of this fantastical creature. Was it first offered as an explanation for an unexpected dark-eyed child to hide the sin of adultery? To explain a wife’s desertion of an unhappy marriage? What are the stories of migration, slavery, and inter-racial liaisons that gave rise to selkie lore? Lanagan’s story doesn’t openly engage with any of the questions I’ve posed here, however it does pursue a story through the selkie legend that I found equally intriguing.
Miskaella is a misshapen and outcast child from a large family. While her family take turns to taunt and shun her, the old folk in the Rollrock community recognise and fear her affinity with the island’s seal population. As Miskaella comes of age and understands she is condemned to a single life, she decides to exploit her ability to summon the seals to secure her fortune and status by procuring wives for the island’s men.
Miskaella’s story is the beginning of a curve on a spiral of selkie legend, a tale of four generations of the Rollrock community that explores the lot of women as spinsters, mothers, wives, and daughters across the ages. It is sad, thought-provoking, beautiful, and hopeful.
I listened to the Bolinda/ABC audiobook edition, read just wonderfully by Eloise Oxer and Paul English.