Science fiction and fantasy

cover of The Brides Of Rollrock Island

The Secret Eater

The Brides Of Rollrock Island

by Margo Lanagan

On Rollrock Island the young boys are all terrified of Misskaella, a crabby old woman who they think is a witch. Their mothers send them out to collect sea-hearts for them, because they all have a peculiar attachment to the sea. These attractive women also have a certain sadness about them.

Point of view shifts can make it much harder to see characters as evil, because there's always a motivation. The Brides Of Rollrock Island switches between quite a lot of viewpoints, going back to Misskaella's childhood early in the novel. She was an ugly child with a fascination for seals which seemed mutual, and she soon learned of the selkie myth of seals shedding their skins and becoming women. As she grows into "an unhappy pudding" she gets teased by young men and generally mocked and shunned. But she realises she has a power that she can use to get even on every islander who scorned her.

The story spans generations, although exactly which generations is hard to pin down. There's very little reference to technology or outside events to orient readers. Perhaps the author thought this sense of timelessness increases the mystery, but it's not something I'm keen on: I like to know when a story is set, so I have a better idea of what's possible.

An enchantment spreads over the island. Dominic Mallett avoided it when his family moved to the mainland, but it comes time for him to sell their home on Rollrock. His wife-to-be is afraid that if he returns to the island he will also be caught up in the madness that afflicts the men. Then later we follow young Daniel, who is gradually becoming aware of the suffering and despair behind the islanders' superficially perfect lives. But what is a boy going to be able to do about the injustices, against a whole island of men?

On one level this is about the oppression of women, and about selfishness. The men in the story take what they want without thinking through the consequences of their actions. The seal-women aren't quite human, and this could be read as a commentary on the dehumanisation that takes place when people are exploited: because they're not considered human, everyone thinks it's okay to take advantage of them. This novel explores interesting themes, but not in a conventionally gripping way. The climax is very low-key, and the tone is often as dour and windswept as the island itself. There's only a little levity in the book, and when it happens it's more about watching young lads lark around, rather than anything witty.

I wasn't sure who to root for at times, because most of the characters are lacking in some way. The "mams" seem sad, but they're also very passive. The men of the island seem spineless and without a will of their own, although this can partly be excused because they are under an enchantment. And the witch Misskaella seems to be equal parts victim and villain. This is a slow burner of a novel, deep and evocative but not particularly fast-paced.

20th November 2013

3 star rating

Review ©

Book Details

Year of release: 2012

Categories: Books

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