The Brides of Rollrock Island By Margo Lanagan

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Cannonball Read V: The Brides of Rollrock Island By Margo Lanagan

By C D-K | Book Reviews | February 8, 2013 | Comments ()


...the book review where I go on a bit of a rant about feminism and the general unkempt state of mammals from the sea. Spoilers ahead....

From the very first line in the summary of The Brides of Rollrock Island, I was instantly repelled by this books concept:

"On remote Rollrock Island, men go to sea to make their livings--and to catch their wives."

But after a scoff and a laugh I trudged on, mostly because I had to read this book for my book club, but a part of me was rooting for the book to be better than the tag line and to have some semblance of substance.

The novel is broken into seven parts narrated by six different people, each with a slightly different perspective and stake in the general story at large. That story is, at its simplest, the sexual exploitation of seals. Yes, seals. Smelly, blubbery, and whiskered seals. In all their glory. I specifically say smelly cause I have been to the coast, and I have been on ecological tours to view the whales, wildlife, and seals. Sure they are fun to watch but never go downwind of a seal island. You will consider tearing your nose off and ripping out your tongue (because once you smell the seal.... you taste the seal too.)

Smell aside, the book takes a different approach to these sea creatures, which by-the-by are essentially the seas version of the cast of Jersey Shore (they fight all day, lay in the sun, and copulate in mass seal orgy piles); the book adds an element of magic to the seal and with the right instrument (a financially and revenge motivated witch) the beautiful maiden that lives within the seal can be lifted out.

Interesting concept, I guess if this has been a fairy tale where we were free maids who were trapped there by some evil force or something to that effect. But instead the beautiful women were but a commodity purchased from the witch by any man who can pay and lack any particular will but to please the first man they bond with (and by bond I mean have dirty beach sex),

It's almost like the author of the book was reading the paper and saw and article where a business by her house got closed down because it turned out it was actually a sex den where they kept illegal immigrants from hostage in the cages and only let them out to please clients and the author was like "that's is a story I want to tell from the perspective for the store owner". That example is actually a true story that happened not 10 blocks from my house and you know what? It's not okay in real life, so I don't think it's alright fantasy novel form either. There seems to be this theme of rape fantasy that exists in young adult novels now-a-days that I find reprehensible.

In the first half of the novel we learn about the life of the seal transforming witch (who I will call M cause her name is long and hard to pronounce and I pretty much said "M-blah blah blah" in my head). M lives a hard life, as the last in large family she is mercilessly teased by everyone from her siblings to all the boys and girls of the town for essentially being the ugly different duckling. But one day she realizes she has a magical connection to seals, a trait which is apparently only inherited by ugly girls. That's cool, I get it, witches are an allegory for the women who are forced to be strong and independent because they aren't pretty enough to be married off.

Don't feel too bad because the witch has a plan and even gets laid occasionally as she, just for herself, transforms male seals into one night stands and has sickly babies she has to give up to the sea. Cause sex outside of marriage is bad, guys! I am starting to get a feel for this book. Anyways, once M realizes she can turn the local wildlife into sex playthings, shit gets real. And the men come-a-calling with all their hard earned money that they hide from their wives and children and throw it at the witch so they too can have a passive sex object.

These men are presented as sympathetic in a way, saying they could not resist the lure of the seal woman that they just had to sweep her off her feet and protect her, marry her (even though many were already married), have children with her and in some cases keep her in a room built in a shed (naked all the time, by the way).

In the next part of the book we see the women's perspective and holy jeeze are the women in this story unsympathetic whiney things. When they are not talking about how horrid the M woman is (and this is before they know about the Seal sex trade) they are talking about how they have to marry off all their daughters and get them popping out babies too. But they sure don't respect the noisy (cause of the babies), filthy (babies again, they make a lot of mess), and sad little households their daughters keep. This part of the book effortlessly shows that all women want to be married and happy, and when they get that very thing they release 'my mistake, this actually makes me miserable and my husband too and now I'm just going to complain all day and make others' lives miserable'. It's a full on perpetual miserable cycle. But what can they do, they are women after all, and their men folk only like them pretty, shiny, and new, and when that wears off they will want themselves a seal lady.

Turns out all seal turning and marriage breaking is a plot by M to get back at all them bitches and men that made fun of her and get rich doing it. So that's how the book progresses, the women folk leave and take their kids; and the men folk buy themselves some seal wives who they marry, just for shits and giggles, and have new families with. But only male sons, mind you, so this goddam bestiality parade can continue.

Eventually the little kids grow up and realize "hey you know what my mother doesn't look too happy, in fact, she may be a kept sex slave forced to laugh at my dad's bad jokes (among other things)". Now the kids aren't happy, especially when some of the seal ladies start offing themselves cause they can't stand being apart from the sea any longer. And they hatch a scheme to free their mothers by returning to them their skins, i.e., their old blubbery seal husk, that the men were keeping locked away. If returned to the women they can re-enter the skin and turn to a seal again! Because its magic! But the mothers don't want to leave the kids so they do some sewing and make the kids some magic skins too, and they all run away into the ocean.

The end.

...No, wait, there is more. No one can be happy.

The men then go out and find the kids (you can tell them apart from other seals cause of the patchwork sewed skin) because, you know, they are half human and the men are so lonely and crap. So the boys are literally cut out of the skin their mothers sewed for them and given back to their dads after an unknown amount of blissfully happy time as a seal. So that happens and more depression ensues and then some other boring stuff happens and a normal woman eventually comes back to the island, cause all the seal ladies are gone, and she meets our seal boy and sparks fly. But hey, history always repeats itself so we all know this won't last.

Overall the book was an easy read and wasn't so dreadful that I had to force myself to continue, but the premise and pretty much everything else about the book was either so laughable ridiculous, when it was attempting to be mysterious and haunting, and infuriating, when it was trying to build a reading and develop the characters. I cannot in good conscious recommend this book unless seal rape is your thing. In which case, ew, and ah... enjoy?

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and find more of C D-K's reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Alyssa

    I agree with the comment about missing the point, but the tone of the review would indicate that this is more of a deliberate misreading of the book.

  • Jackie Morris

    We both read the same book. I love it. You hated it.

  • Tehani

    You absolutely have the right to not enjoy a book, but in this case, I think you might have actually missed the point completely. Lanagan's purpose in the utilising Selkies as the focus of the story is to deliberately subvert the story, showing unreservedly that the exploitation of the Selkie women is a) not okay, and b) harmful to the entire community. An astute reader can see the parallels with real world exploitative/abusive relationships, and explore the thematic elements the story contains. It's a dark and powerful story, written to Lanagan's extraordinary high standard. You have the right not to like it, but a wilful misunderstanding and "book bashing" like this is pretty sad.

  • JMR, Australia

    C D-K, there's nothing like a good review, and this is nothing like a good review. There is a certain art to reviewing, but sadly, I don't think you have it. Never mind - if you keep trying, one day you might write a critique that is not snarky and mean, but rather measured, considered and actually useful to other readers. You know, instead of something that could have been better said thus: "I didn't understand this book or what the author was trying to do, but since new ideas frighten me, I am compelled to think that this book must have been shit."

    By the way, the character name you found so hard to pronounce was Misskaella. I'm sure you can do it - let's try it together: "Miss-kay-la". See? Easy! And meanwhile, in the time you've been struggling to master the pronunciation of a three syllable word, Margo Lanagan has written another Carnegie-listed book. Imagine how good she could be with your help!

    Incidentally, the two phrases you're looking for in the last paragraph are "laughably ridiculous" and "cannot in good conscience".

    3 out of 10 - try harder.

  • mswas

    Please note, as stated at the bottom of the review, that the Cannonball Read is a volunteer effort. As C D-K works on completing her 52 reviews in a year, she might approach your standards. You might consider joining us next year for #6 and see how measured you could be with a book you didn't like. http://cannonballread5.wordpre...

  • JMR, Australia

    I've actually reviewed plenty of books, and I know from experience that it is possible to dislike a book without the snark. I've also had my own books reviewed, and while it's not pleasant to hear that someone didn't enjoy your work, it's bearable while ever it remains civil. However, this review is not civil. Again, it is unnecessarily nasty. What C D-K seems to have forgotten is that the 52 books she reviews this year are written by 52 real people. Real people with feelings, who put part of themselves on display for the edification of readers.

    Now, some might say "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen", but that view is far too simplistic, and somewhat convenient. Artists know that they can't please everyone. In fact, if they try to do so, they will almost certainly fail to please anyone. But what they don't expect - or deserve - is to have their work so wilfully misunderstood.

    Perhaps I was harsh. If so, I apologise. But if C D-K is smarting about the reception to her review, she should spare a thought for the writer who pours hours, days, months, years into their work. You can't like every book, but let's not forget the person behind it.

  • ang

    Can I gently remind you that this is Pajiba. People here are supposed to be allowed to be snarky even if they are referencing something that YOU like.

  • JMR, Australia

    Again, I have no issue with a negative review, and my point has nothing to do with differing views. What I do have an issue with is such an insensitive critique of someone's work, especially when that person is personally pinged on Twitter, presumably to ensure they get to read their own work being slammed. Not appraised, critiqued, even criticised, but derided. Ridiculed, in fact.

  • JMR, Australia

    Furthermore, whilst reviewers on Pajiba are "supposed to be allowed to be snarky", a glance through some of the other CBR5 reviews shows that none are as unkind as this one. So it's not a blog "house-style" thing, it's just a bad review. Also, nowhere in any of my comments have I given an opinion about this book, so I'm not necessarily referencing something that I like, as you claim - I'm simply taking issue with the tone of the review. That's it.

  • Robert G Cook

    This is the stupidest book review I've ever read. And to add insult to insult, it's appallingly written by someone who is apparently such a lazy reader they can't be bothered to try to pronounce a slightly unusual name. (Imagine the trouble you'd have with, say, 'Anna Karenina'...)

  • mswas

    We have a review of Anna Karenina from a previous CBR, but if you'd like to join us next year, you could contribute reviews of other Tolstoy works. http://cannonballread5.wordpre...

  • Dr Smug


  • Nell

    For what it's worth I have read the book. The subject matter is dark and obviously not everyone will like it but that does not detract from the writer's skill in retelling an ancient story - in this case one about selkies, which has always problematical from the point of view of sexual exploitation - from a new and challenging perspective. Love or hate the subject matter, Lanagan is a talented writer and in my opinion - I'm an English teacher, librarian and reviewer - like any other writer, deserves to be shown respect.

    I's suggest you google " how to write a review" where you will find a great deal of information on how to write a quality review should you intend to do more in the future.

  • mswas

    @664a6f4e8acf1e60cefca5c57b410fa4:disqus Check out our project, we're always looking for new participants. Maybe you'd like to join us next year http://cannonballread5.wordpre...

  • C D-K

    Just to clarify, my book club did not agree with my somewhat scathing critique of this book. The other ladies tended to feel that the explanation that the men-folk were entranced by the witches spell justified their behaviour enough that the book was considered more fantastical and dark and alt-fairy tale esque. The dislike for the books core concepts seemed to be just from me.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Whaaaaat? Is this real? I've heard of selkies, but this sounds like a terrible retelling.

  • Anne At Large

    Wow, I always saw the selkie legend as kind of sweet and sad, this makes it sound much more miserable and creepy . Thanks for the great review!

  • I have literally just started reading this, not enough to comment myself yet. But I was surprised and interested to read how much you didn't like it as Lanagan has such a phenomenal reputation and this book, whilst not as much as Tender Morsels, has been extremely popular in the UK. It's currently on the Carnegie longlist and I've heard nothing but good things about it from other librarians. I can't really comment as I haven't read it, but Lanagan's work is normally playing with fairy tales and it sounds like this might be the case here as well. I'll have to report back once I've read it!

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Let's be honest, 50 Shades of Gray is really popular in the UK, too.

  • Ah, touché. I meant amongst UK teen librarians, colleagues who are well read and I deem to have good taste!

  • Mrs. Julien

    If you have a chance, pop over to the comments from the review on the CBR5 site. There was very interesting back and forth.

  • Will do. And I'll finish reading it and comment more intelligently!

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