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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc
David Elliott
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Julia Serano

The Brides of Rollrock Island (Sea Hearts)

The Brides of Rollrock Island - Margo Lanagan
***Note: this review presumes that you've read the book.***
This book is beautifully written ("...the dunes' fine hairs blown back from their foreheads"), and the setting is lush and gorgeous. It feels like fully fleshed-out ancient folklore, but is also grounded by an authentic-feeling place, and the timelessness of a poor island cut off from the mainland. I think it was the most flawlessly written book I read in 2012 in terms of language and construction. I tried to catch Lanagan up by looking for mistakes (continuity errors, for example), but even a careful reading showed almost none. She is clearly an exacting writer with very high standards, and I admire her tremendously for that. I'm surprised this didn't win any major literary awards.
The biggest single criticism I allow myself of BRIDES is that, despite the multiple voices, multiple generations, sophisticated language, and commentary on male subjugation of women, it's surprisingly--for lack of a better word--straightforward.  The plot is not nuanced and there are no layers, other than the discovery that this story is cyclical--that we're witnessing one complete cycle of something that will always be. I was surprised at how easy it was for me to summarize the book for my son on our jog one morning, and at his (young-adult, male) interruption of, "This is boring." Reading a few online sites about selkies, it seems that Lanagan re-wrote (granted, beautifully), a standard traditional tale, right down to the boys freeing the mothers and joining them.
There's definitely a homosocial critique here: the sea-wives are like slaves, the husbands like benevolent masters; men are afraid of "real" women--women with opinions and moods; there's a good-ol-boy drinking club and agreement to keep the island's secret; the witch who was ignored and lonely and pronounced unattractive in her childhood later exacts her revenge on men and women by punishing them using the weapon of the men's own homosocial tendencies. Men will always be frail like this; "outsider" witch-types will always feel abused; people will always give in to temptation. And there's a sort of analogy between freeing wild animals and freedom of choice. In terms of theme, the most important line of the book might actually be this: "It's not as if the girl babs are dead," agreed Martin Dashwell. Misogyny from the mouths of babes.  
Sometimes the frilly, dreamy language (e.g. the whole blossoming of Missk's powers in the beginning) didn't immediately evoke a clear image to me until I read a passage several times, but that's not necessarily a bad thing (it's good to struggle over rich, dense language). Some sentences were opaque to me at first. For instance, when Able asks Missk to make a seal woman for him, Missk's thought is this: "So different, this was, this bald question, from the nightful of sea-shush and magic, and the bull seal hefting himself up the rock." Is she comparing the approach and intentions of Able and the man-seal, saying that the man-seal only wants her from her, whereas Able doesn't see her even as a female, he only wants her magic? (But then why talk about the bull seal and not the human version of the seal?) There were other sentences, too, that stopped me up for a moment (after re-reading a few times they make sense, but not on first reading) for instance when Bet's mom says, "And Nase when you fill him with kickwater, and his whole soul falls out his mouth onto the table--who would know then? Who would be standing by?" I had to labor a bit over the fact that this means when he gets drunk he'll blab about the selkie girl he had sex with. Some imagery was slow to click with me, too, like "The [selkie] coat's edge broke the surface; its whole shadow hung within a big sunlit wave like a hovering hawk."  Comparing a water scene to an air scene doesn't work for me here; it took me a few readings to see what Lanagan wanted me to see. 
More critical analysis of a lovely book:

1. The voices were just too similar--they were all Margo Lanagan, through and through, and not individuals: 
Missk, Trudle, and Domenic all use the word "totter" to describe the witch's walk. Domenic describes her as rocking stiff-legged, boy Daniel describes Trudle as rocking when she walks (and rocky-rocking), Lory Severing describes Trudle as rocking toward the boat as it's pulling into the dock. Bet says: "a patch of blackness sprouted at her cleft" and Dominic says: "the shadowy cleft of her." (Even if cleft is common slang for female genitalia, which I can't find on the internet, Bet is just thirteen!) And perhaps it's supposed to be because they're all from the same island, but they all have a certain repetitive lilt to their voices. Missk says things like "deep in my deeps" and Bet says "...the witch's face broke open, open, and opener," while Dominic says "her black fall-and-fall of hair." Trudle says of the wind, "it surprises and surprises me..." 
It just can't be that everyone on a single island talks with the exact same lyricism: "We walked up into the teeth of the wind," and "echoes of the cold noising sea." "the smell promised cleansing, and horizons, and sky, a flying-out from this, a floating-out..." Also, Lanagan has a tic of creating hyphenated phrases that are very poetic, but it doesn't lend itself to several voices: "funnel- and mast-shadows" Dominic: "fall-and-fall of hair" Daniel: "the gray rain-beginning," "Down slippy-slap we went, the wind skirling and twiddling around us."
Lanagan also has a very distinctive way of punctuating using commas between fragmentary descriptions, which wouldn't be a speech pattern that everyone on the island has...would it? (Maybe it would!) Here are a couple of examples:
Bet: "the cows were like islands, and we ran across the grassy sea between them, the stony."
Dominic: "I had heard and known about it all my life, that older world, that angrier." 
Don't get me wrong: these writing "tics" are lovely...they're just so distinctive they made the voices all sound alike for me. 
2. Misskaella's motivation. 
The driving force behind this particular cycle of selkie-wives is implied to be the misery of the witch, Misskaela. But Missk's childhood misery is not terribly exceptional, and is mostly teasing about her being unmarriageable. (I grew up in a poor, urban area, and two little neighborhood boys I played with had cigarette burns on their arms--random punishments from their mother. That's exceptional abuse.) In a literary sense, I think the weakness in Missk's motivation is that her misery is so often told and not shown:
"All the world seemed intent on pointing out what I lacked."
"...what consolation was that, to watch the essence of things in its dance-and-streaming, when I must always return to the flatter like and the silenter, where I was an object not of reverence or wonder but of scorn?" 
"I thought our family would stay this way forever, my sisters ignoring me except to tell me to straighten my posture and close my mouth and smile, for goodness' sake!, Mam lining up with them against me, and Dad striding among us with his eyes high and his chin stuck out, and Billy gone."  
"I seemed to be everyone's but my own; I was like a broom or dishrag that anyone might pick up and use, and put aside without a thought when they were done with me."
"What was it about me, I could see them wondering, that I was not so ignorable as usual, not so repellent?"
(In other instances, Lanagan is a master of show-not-tell, which is why I don't give her a pass when it comes to the most important thing: motivating Missk's misery)
Even after she becomes the witch, Missk's voice often slips into telling:
[about her first baby] "I had never felt such feelings before." 
"gazing at me as if unaware that I had ears or feelings." 
"I was not above caring; I was not above longing for relief from this unending shame, from this relentless loneliness."
3. The science of the selkie transformation is not consistent.
a. When she takes off her crossed straps to make the man from the bull, the seals on the beach don't mob her. (Or are we supposed to believe the male calms the females, and they obey him? If so, it's not shown.)
b. The male is extremely coordinated (gross and fine motor skills, e.g. walking, and doesn't he carry her?, and pushing back the curls on her forehead), as are the female selkies, who can walk as soon as they're created. The first selkie immediately says, "What have you done to me?" and yet Daniel can't talk at all (could only manage cries, like a seal) or even raise his arms when he's transformed back into a human. Two men have to walk him up and down the deck of the ship to teach him to walk. Why the difference?
c. We're told that female halflings don't thrive, and that's another reason to return them to the sea (whether it's true or not), but we never see boys returned. Why is it that Missk's three boys didn't thrive?
4. What exactly are the sea-maid's personalities? I had a big problem reconciling the "placid" with the "utterly-competent." 
Why do the women take a couple of generations to become overtly unhappy? The explanation we're told by Toddy is that young boys don't notice their mothers' misery, marriageable men only want the wife, and older men are in agreed-upon denial. But suicides don't begin to happen until much later in the cycle. Bet's mom says, "They'll go where they're pushed, these women, if there's no prospect of escape to animate them toward the sea." But then Neme gives Dominic the shell to fortify him to resist Kitty, and says, "I fear you will stay and marry her as you said, simply because you are there and in sight of her." Why is Neme trying to preserve her relationship with him? I think that Lanagan wants us to believe that the seals will happily mate with the human they've bonded with, and are loving mothers, but prefer to return to the sea. (The transient, recurring sexual relationship the bull-male presumably has with Missk is perhaps an example of how the creatures might prefer to live, if given a choice.) 
5. The seal life Lanagan depicts through Daniel's five years in the sea is quite naturalist, rather than fantasy, which makes some real-life details feel false. For example, the mams "laughed lounging around us" when they see the boy seals play-fight with each other--that shows too much theory of the mind for female seals. As a weaned, non-dominant teenage male, wouldn't Daniel's life be sort of hell--being pushed to the outskirts of the group? Also, how long do wild seals typically live, and isn't five years a big chunk of it? When the boys become fishermen, there's a false moment where I saw the author's hand: seeing squirming, gaping fish in the net pains the boys. Daniel says, "expiring before my eyes for want of the larger system that sustained it." Honestly, he spent his childhood in a fishing village, spent five years as a seal that hunts fish, and now is a fisherman for a living--I guarantee you he has never once considered fish as needing the same freedom as humans and seals. Lanagan wanted us to see a metaphor there, but it was ham-handed to put it in Daniel's mouth.
6. The hidden birth of Missk's first baby felt contrived to me, too convenient. Mam never stops back in her own house long enough to discover it? She conveniently returns in the spring after the bab is gone? All the "reasons" (avoiding dying Dad, taking care of her grandchildren) seemed forced.
7. The gifts to young Missk are from the older generation, and I think we're meant to believe they're appeasing her, calming her (or are they from old men who are evilly grooming her?). We also see children, women, and men afraid of her. But she is never shown to have any other power than the ability to draw women out of seals, and knit soothing kelp blankets. Why are people so afraid of her?
8. Tiny errors: 
a. Bet sees her dad's sea-maid and says it's the first time she has seen one "straight on and lamplit"...but I was pretty sure she saw Nase's girl in the lighted hall. 
b. Dominic thinks upon the "nights" he had with Neme when he's confessing to Kitty, but there only appears to be one night. 
c. Boy Daniel doesn't understand the comment the pink-cheeked woman tosses out (that the mothers are seals), but he knows enough to say to his mom that when he has a wife he will let her sing and speak seal in the house. 
d. The lamps in the houses are all off when the boys and mams steal away, but Daniel talks about the "town's windows, its eyes" watching him. Perhaps he means the emptiness of the glass, but this scene happened in the dark and the houses wouldn't be that visible, no?
e. Daniel jumps back from his mam's alive skin at the waterfront, but his feet are bound tight in flippers (I'd believe falling over while trying to jump!). 
f. Dominic says that Missk didn't have to help them recover their boys from the sea because she's rich. But having lots of possessions on an isolated island with a totally depressed economy (by that time) is not the same as having cash to buy food. Unless we're to presume that she sells her possessions in Cordlin.
And finally, this is not a complaint, but a wonder I had. Twice Missk talks about the pleasure in discovering that you're small in the universe and your life has no meaning. The wanna-be English major in me can't figure out why she's thinking these things in the context of the story. Here are the two times she says it:
"How lovely it was to be tiny and alone, to have quickened to living for a moment here, to be destined soon to blink out and let time wash away all mark and remembrance of me." 
"What did my wants count for? Nothing and less than nothing. I watched the ceiling's swirling shadows, happy to matter so little." 
There is unbridled joy in her expression, not resignation or relief. It's not the melancholia of a lonely person wishing to be gone. It's linked in the text with suddenly feeling beautiful (because of the seal man loving her), as if by seeing how small everyone is in the universe, she recognizes that she's their equal, and therefore equally beautiful. Is that what Lanagan meant? It's just interesting that being "piddling" actually gives her meaning, when so much of her satisfaction in life has seemed to be controlling this island, and exacting a subtle type of revenge.
As you can see, there's a lot to chew over in this novel, which is why Lanagan is such an intriguing writer.