Cannonball Read V: The Brides of Rollrock Island By Margo Lanagan
...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.
...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?
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)