‘The secrets gusted about the streets with the leaves and litter, thick enough in the air to choke me.’
This one sentence is a good indication of both the style and the substance of Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts, published in the US and UK as The Brides of Rollrock Island. There’s something very claustrophobic about the book, which is filled with secrets and the language is beautifully constructed.
Told from multiple points of view, each chronicling a short period of time over a span of sixty or so years on the tiny and remote Rollrock Island, the story centres, in a fashion, around the sea-witch Misskaella.
As a young woman, unwanted by the men of the island and ostracised by the women, Misskaella discovers that she has the power to extract a human woman from inside a seal. The men of Rollrock find these sea-wives irresistible.
The genesis of Lanagan’s story is the selkie-folk of Orcadian folklore, who were a gentle, shape-shifting race that typically shed their skins to take human form. A common theme in the stories is of young men stealing or tricking a selkie-woman out of her sealskin.
Lanagan takes the nub of these stories and fashions a rich tale across multiple generations. It’s a story of desire, revenge, love and freedom.
I had the good fortune to meet Lanagan and hear her speak recently at the final session of the writing workshop I’ve been doing this year, the Write Your Novel course with Pamela Freeman (author of the Castings Trilogy) at the Australian Writers’ Centre.
She focused her talk about her journey to becoming a professional and published writer. By 1997 Lanagan had 14 published books – nine teenage romances under various pseudonyms, three junior novels and two YA novels, but still ‘hadn’t two-pennies to rub together.’
She was working for some time on a sprawling epic fantasy, the world of which eventually became too cumbersome and complicated (a good warning for me, with my leaning towards complications). In 1999 attended the Clarion West speculative fiction six-week writing workshop in Seattle, after which she focused more on writing short stories.
Lanagan’s first collection of short stories, Black Juice, published in 2004, won multiple awards, and contains the short story Singing My Sister Down, which itself won awards such as the Aurealis, World Fantasy and Ditmar Awards. She has since published five collections of short stories and two successful novels.
Both Sea hearts and 2008’s Tender Morsels (based on the legend of Snow White and Rose Red), draw on Lanagan’s experience and expertise writing short stories: multiple points of view, each standing alone, all gathered around an idea or theme.
It’s the type of technique that garnered Jennifer Egan’s 2011 A Visit from the Goon Squad so much praise. But where Egan’s story was about so many things across such a wide canvass that, in the end, in my opinion at least, it was really about nothing, in the narrow world of Sea hearts Lanagan’s multiple narrators work to create a haunting narrative where it’s the cruel and brave sacrifices of so many of the characters that stick with you, not just a mastery of technique.
Sea hearts by Margo Lanagan.
Published February 2012
Allen & Unwin. 343 pages.