‘Sea Hearts’ by Margo Lanagan


2012,  343 p.  Also published as ‘The Brides of Rollrock Island”

I’ve always loved stories about mermaids and selkies.  As a child, it was a special treat for me to read a book that had belonged to my mother called “The Children’s Treasure House” by Alfred Noyes, copyright 1935.  It has beautifully rendered coloured plates, black and white art-deco line drawings and it is indeed a treasury of stories and poems including Hans Christian Anderson, The Brothers Grimm and simplified retellings from the works of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare etc.  I see through Trove  http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/47810432b  that it cost 5/- with 1/- for postage, and was available through the Women’s Weekly.  I had two favourite stories in the book.  One was the Snow Queen, and the other was The  Little Mermaid- the REAL Little Mermaid:  no Disney-saccharine Ariel, Flounder and Scuttle the Seagull here-  but the proper story, with its pain, yearning and sad, sad ending.


Whenever I’m in a boat travelling across clear, shallow water and I see those glistening threads of sunlight in the water or foam on the edge of waves, I think of this picture.

Selkies are more confronting, given their connection with seals, but fascinating none the less. According to the legend (which of course has many variations), male selkies are handsome, powerful and seductive but can only remain a short time before returning to the sel. Female selkies  will stay on land as long as their sealskins are hidden from them, and even have children with human men, but will return to the sea as soon as they find their skin again.  Often their own children unwittingly help the selkie to find the skin that has been deliberately hidden from her, and either the selkie forsakes her husband and children to return to the waves, or takes the children with her. Several years ago,  I fell in love with the movie The Secret of Roan Inish with its selkie and the little lost boy. I liked it so much so that I watched it two days in a row when it came to a local theatre. Again- yearning and loss, and a beautiful, windswept setting.


So when I read that Margo Lanagan’s book Sea Hearts is about selkies, I wanted to read it.  Off to the library I toddled, only to find that it wasn’t on the shelves even though the catalogue claimed that it was.  Ah- silly me- it’s in the Teenage section

I really don’t know what distinguishes ‘teenage’ from ‘adult’ here.  It’s a beautifully told story, spun out over several generations. It is set on remote Rollrock Island, with its village of fisherfolk and small cottages.  The  chapters are of varying lengths, told in the first person in a curious, lilting accent.  Each chapter focuses on a different character and time elapses between generation to generation.  One of the longest and most compelling chapters is told by Missakaella, an awkward young woman, shunned by the villagers, drawn to the sea and especially the seals in the bay.  They are attracted to her, too, and her mother forces her to wear an apron with crossed strings, that somehow keeps the seals at bay.  It is through Missakaella that the age-old meeting between selkie and human is reconsummated.  It is a powerful and evocative piece of writing that I found oddly, and breath-holdingly erotic.  That’s quite a narrative feat: to not only be lulled into suspending disbelief about the physicality between seal and woman, but to actually stir a response to it as well. But actions have consequences: obsession becomes possession; love becomes loss; something taken can take in return.

This is a handsomely presented book, with each chapter separated by a black-and-white illustration that evokes seaweed, bubbles and deep cold water.  I must admit, though, that I found the front cover rather sinister and disturbing.  The book itself is not.  Instead, it’s a haunting love story, too good to be left to teenagers.  It has been longlisted for the Stella Prize  but if it were to win, it would be an usual, rather ‘brave’ choice.

My rating:  8.5/10

Sourced from: The ‘teenage’ section of the Yarra Plenty Regional Library (hah!)

Read because: several people had reviewed it on the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2012; I noted that it had been shortlisted for the Stella; and because I’m fascinated by selkies!


8 responses to “‘Sea Hearts’ by Margo Lanagan

  1. Intriguing RJ, The secret of Roan Inish was the first time I became aware of selkies and I was entranced. I have the CD as I loved the music. Anyhow, I didn’t really hear of them again until this book (which I must say I haven’t read yet) and I thought I should read it. And then I saw the YA tag and wondered whether I really would want to read it? But, clearly it’s more than YA. A bit like The book thief perhaps.

    • Yes, the Book Thief is an apt comparison (although completely different content of course!). I can only think that it might be a marketing decision to label this as YA perhaps, given that she’s written YA before. I’m wondering whether I’d like teaching the book in school. I don’t think that I would- I don’t know that I could bring young readers over the ‘ick’ factor of sex with a seal.

  2. I’ve not watched Roan Inish and never heard of selkies before today! I saw that this title had been shortlisted for the Stella, and wondered about it’s inclusion- only because of the perceived YA tag- I was otherwise thrilled. Perhaps this will get more people (like me finally?) reading Margo Lanagan? I hope so- for her sake, and mine. Although as one who reads perhaps too much children’s fiction I’m really not sure why the YA/adult divide is so great? Surely adults can enjoy these books too? There’s a lot of gems hidden away in the “kids” section. Margo Lanagan has been bubbling around on my TBR for some time. I’m glad that you liked it so well, but I do wonder about the seal thing.

  3. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013 completed! | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  4. Pingback: Six degrees of separation: From Our Wives Under the Sea to…. | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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