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The Brides of Rollrock Island

The Brides of Rollrock Island, Margo Lanagan
Knopf, September 2012
Reviewed from ARC

My first draft for this post, which sat in WordPress for two weeks, taunting me, read as follows: “So much to say! And none of it coherent!”

You know how I delayed and delayed writing about The Raven Boys? And then was kind of indecisive anyway? The same musical cue should play now, because I’m feeling the same way. Only more so.

Brides is, in so many ways, magnificent, but something doesn’t entirely gel (think of Misskaella, pulling those nodes of light together — and now imagine her missing one. It’s still magic, but it doesn’t actually produce the desired result.)

Do I think this doesn’t deserve the Printz as a result? No. Well, not exactly. I don’t know.

This is likely a top fiver based on any consensus polling of Someday readers, and I would not be surprised if the same were the case for the RealCommittee as well (remember, though, that I can’t be trusted with predictions because I am always wrong, so I probably just killed Brides‘ chances), but I am really conflicted just the same; this is a book I want to assess by sitting back and listening while other folks debate it, and through that let my own thoughts come to some conclusion. Sometimes it’s much easier to think responsively, because I need that collision of ideas to push my own thinking.

But it would be incredibly lazy to leave my assessment at “I don’t know”, so I am giving coherency a try. Also, although this is the first time we’re talking about Brides in depth, consider this the opening to discuss this one for the Pyrite* shortlist, and shout your thoughts in the comments.

I’ve said before that I think the ideal Printz book is a book you can teach. Not a book that requires teaching to be appreciated, nor one with a message — but a book that offers enough that readers can dig in and grapple with the text in multiple ways, a book that rewards rereading, that has different strands that can be explored and discussed, all of them supported by the the text but none of them one-dimensional or obvious. I thought The Returning offered this last year, for sure, and this year I think Code Name Verity, Railsea, and The Storyteller (which I realize no one but me admired) all offer that kind of reading experience.

(Some other beloved 2012 books, like The Raven Boys, The Diviners, Grafitti Moon, and maybe The Fault in Our Stars, are rich reads but I think less supportive of multiple ways of reading, making them fall a little shorter in my estimation, but that is probably my own bias in preferencing this kind of thematic richness over other aspects, and feel free to argue against that bias, but I do think that kind of depth is worth our admiration and is certainly a mark of excellence, albeit for a possibly narrower-than-it-needs-to-be definition of excellence.)

Brides is definitely a book that demonstrates this kind of excellence; it almost begs a reader to write a paper or five. But I feel like I could write an analysis on any one aspect and then write a piece arguing the opposite using some of the same passages as support. As Maureen at By Singing Light said in her write up, “For instance, there is a lot … about men and women, but I was never sure exactly what Lanagan was trying to say about that.”

(This is in fact the exact same thing that has continued to bother me about Tender Morsels, another book I think is magnificent and ripe for discussion and teaching.)

I agree 100% that this is a text that seems to have something to say, only I’m not always sure what it’s saying, and some of what it seems to be saying is deeply troubling. My being troubled is not pertinent to a Printz conversation (except as worth noting because it’s always good to look long and hard at the baggage we are carrying), but the sense that something is being said, only it’s unclear, is. The rub is that I can’t figure out if this is a strength (making readers think and work for understanding, presenting different perspectives and no easy answers) or a flaw (author not in control of the thematic scope). In other words, is it my failing or the book’s failing?

Because ultimately, this book is about a lot of things, and seal-women from the sea is perhaps the least of what this is about — that’s just plot (and not always very strong plot, frankly, which I’ll get to in a minute). This is about shame and sorrow, about family and love, about the ways men and women interact and the ways that what is wanted is not always what is needed. This is about sex — good lord, is this about sex — and desire, and about simple living and complicated living. It’s about revenge, and fairness, and the ways that one person’s actions can shape the world, an idea made quite literal through Miskaella’s magic. It is, maybe, about community, and very much about the injuries people deal others often without cruel intent.

For any of those themes, I could write an essay. Shame, for instance, is mentioned in every story (chapter? Not sure what word best describes the sections, but they are closest to stories, each their own), and plays a large role in forming Missk’s character, which in turn propels the plot. But then at the end, shame is left behind — in Lory and Trudle’s sections, the text moves from shame and embarrassment as recurring words to sentences about not feeling shame, about sharing things openly, perhaps indicating that the future holds more openness and honesty, and is therefore a better place. And just before Lory’s section we have Daniel’s, where shame definitely comes up, again and again, but the shame the boys feel at making light of their mam’s coats is precisely what moves things forward, resulting in the honesty of the women returned to the sea; “she was herself,” as Daniel says.

I think, although I still have some discomfort with some of what the text seems to say (for instance, men are happier with women who are docile and beautiful and have significant libidos, but women are so miserable in similar relationships that they commit suicide), this probably does come down on the excellence side.

But how all that thematic richness is achieved is sometimes less excellent. There is an over-reliance on heteronormative binaries, for instance, a set up that forces certain conversations and begs for interpretation but is simplistic; not every man wants a wife, and not every girl just wants to get married, and the setting is modern enough that you’d expect some career single people at least, plus statistics). Similarly, there is a lot of sameness (there are mams, dads, boys, and witches, and then there are the red women who all left), which flattens characters in service to thematic exploration.

Which is also the place where the plot falls down. Again, the plot is pretty thin anyway, although that thinness is somewhat ameliorated by the choice to tell the story as interlinked narratives from various characters over a fairly significant span of time. Lanagan is, deservedly, known for her short fiction, and a novel told through sections that in many ways are short stories suits her writing style well. She knows how to pack a world into a short handful of pages, how to create a character in a few deft sentences, how to make a setting come to life with vivid description that doesn’t overwhelm.

But despite the vivid prose (and I will gush about that in a moment) that makes Rollrock feel so real, there are world-building aspects that seem to exist only to move a weak plot forward (and the plot itself seemed to be in service of the themes, so does this start to get pedantic, even if the message is totally murky?). The very premise of much of the story —  that the sea-wives impress upon whomever they first see, that they love and are loved automatically — this is the weakest thing of all, I think; it’s just THERE in order to propel the rest of it, but it’s sort of… magic. In the lame way; magic that doesn’t feel natural or logical in this world (how does it go along with the sorrow, or the way in which the women are so different under the sea?). Misskaella’s summoning magic felt more natural to the world (although less so once it turns out that a random Knocknee girl could have the same power; it made more sense with the eaarlier implication that Misskaella was so endowed because she is a throwback to the last round of sea-wives and purely a product of Rollrock).

So there is, actually, quite a lot that I see as flawed.

And then there is the place where this soars. The thing that keeps this in the running as a serious contender, even more than the thematic scope, is the language. Lanagan is a master wordsmith. Neologisms and portmanteaus and unique, perfect twists of phrase and oddly structured sentences that make a community real, because there is a dialect and rhythm that evoke place even without ever describing the place — all magnificent. You can open Brides pretty much anywhere and find a sentence or paragraph to go into raptures over.

Of course, there is a taste element here — not everyone will enjoy Lanagan’s language play. But if that’s you, push past the personal, emotional response, and just take a minute to reflect on the writing. Even if you hate it, I have a hard time imagining a coherent argument that it’s not impressive and well crafted and indicative of literary excellence. The only book that comes close, this year, is probably Railsea, but this lacks the self-conscious, possibly forced quality some saw as an issue in Railsea‘s language. It all sounds natural (and the misnames — Ann Jelly and Misskaella and Grassy Ella — love that! Mainland culture transformed by Rollrock, giving us a sense of language and culture in just the names), and the subtle differences in voices were great — Dominic and Lory and Trudle sound just a little different from Misskaella and Bet and Daniel, indicative of the Rollrock versus mainland upbringings of those characters.

You can smell that salty, sea-charged air; see Misskaella stumping along the beach; feel the wind that scours Rollrock and the hear the stillness of this world almost out of time. This is all thanks to the language; Lanagan uses repetition in such beautiful ways to layer up the world (the repeated ways in which she describes the foreignness of the seal women, for instance, with a limited word choice — foreign, Spanish, dark eyes, wings of hair — and the variety of ways in which the red women — hair alone is mentioned a lot but in different terms pretty much every time — are described, which subtly plays up the ways in which the sea-wives are not, in fact, human, and lack the variety of human women — but then this is all done by characters with the opposite bias, so that what is said and what is implied through the language are in some ways opposite — masterful!)

(Although the linear telling in Misskaella, Dominic, and Daniel’s stories, the short recounting of their lives, was poor pacing, I found — all telling, although a particularly lovely telling. Misskaella’s section is the weakest, which makes it a bit of a lengthy and problematic opening, especially after that short and sweet and provocative prologue-esque start.)

There is so much here. I could discuss this for hours (and hope that we will, via the comments, and now that I look at the word count, I realize you may think I already have), but it comes down to this: does it WORK? I’m still not sure it does. But at the same time I stand in awe of Lanagan’s prose, so is this a book with deeper flaws than some but also deeper achievements? And where does that fall when we are looking for the 5 best books of the year? I don’t think I could give this one the gold, if mine were the one vote, but silver? Probably. But I could maybe be argued out of that stance, too. Because I feel very waffly.

So help a girl out. Where do you fall on Brides, and why? Textual evidence strongly encouraged!

Edited to add: you might want to jump over to Crossreferencing before chiming in, if you haven’t already, where Mark shares his almost completely opposite take on Brides (I like to wait until I’m done writing to read other posts, usually — too easy to be influenced otherwise!), and a few of the comments raise other aspects of flaws and pros. I think that post plus mine gives a nice opposing viewpoints kind of overview.

*The Pyrite Printz, or Pyrite, is the Someday My Printz Will Come mock Printz deliberation, and should not in any way be confused with YALSA’s Michael L. Printz Award, often referred to here as the RealPrintz or Printz. Our predictions, conversations, and speculation about potential RealPrintz contenders and winners reflect only our own best guesses and are not affiliated with YALSA or the RealPrintz committee. You probably figured that out on your own, but we like to make it clear!

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. I really felt like this was a mythological anthropological study, not a novel. Except it was trying to be a novel, and (i thought) failing as a novel. The thinness of the plot and the absolute slowness were what made it so hard for me to appreciate as a novel, though I also had some problems with characterization–with the possible exception of Misskaela, they’re archetypes and being used to explore the effect of changing life patterns in an isolated community, rather than people. And Misskaela? Deftly drawn, but still more of a plot-propeller than a person.

    Fascinating, troubling, beautifully written–but I totally agree that it doesn’t pull together.

  2. First of all, pardon me while I recover from being mentioned in a Someday post. (!!)

    Second, this: “The rub is that I can’t figure out if this is a strength (making readers think and work for understanding, presenting different perspectives and no easy answers) or a flaw (author not in control of the thematic scope). In other words, is it my failing or the book’s failing?” Yes. This is what I was trying to get at and what I’m still not clear about. And to me the fact that I’m STILL not clear about it, after reading and writing and thinking significantly about that very issue, is a weakness in the book. Perhaps Lanagan wants to leave us with an unsettled feeling, but if that’s her aim, I don’t think she achieves it at all, because what I’m left with is not being unsettled but being baffled.

    I was consistently puzzled by the setting which seemed to teeter between being historical (say early 1900s) and being modern. At first I saw it as being purely historical, but then there were a few mentions of things like buses (I don’t have the book with me to find specific examples, unfortunately–if anyone does, please chime in!) I think this is partly related to what you (Karyn) pointed out above in terms of plot and world being secondary to theme, but it also contributes to the overall instability of the text.

    On a first read, riding on the waves of Lanagan’s prose and wanting to know what was going to happen next, I didn’t notice problems of pacing or plot. As I’m thinking about it, though, I suspect that a more thorough/closer reading would reveal them. I do certainly remember that I was much more enthusiastic about the beginning of the book than I was at the end, for whatever that’s worth.

    And yes, I could definitely see (and support) this being given silver, mostly because that language is so amazingly beautiful. For me, I think there are significant enough issues that I would at least be disappointed if it won gold.

    • I asked Lanagan about the setting at a reading; I had thought maybe the book was meant to span several centuries, with Misskaella as someone outside the normal time/space, because I was also surprised by the appearance of a bus. But she said no, that it takes place roughly turn of the 20th century–and now I can see that very well. For some reason I’d assumed that the initial story about Misskaella’s childhood took place around the 1600s, but there’s nothing in the book signifying that. It does, of course, span several decades.

      • Karyn Silverman says

        I thought turn of the century as well, with Rollrock rather behind the times. But although I did get when it was set, some aspects struck me as a bit off (those Cordlin tourists felt very 1890s, but then the motorcars made it seem that by then we were well into the 1910s, but maybe my sense of that period is at fault, which is why I didn’t bring it up initially as an example of imperfections in world building).
        (And was anyone else strongly reminded of Thisby in The Scorpio Races? Although there I thought, how does no one mind carnivorous horses and all these deaths, which was a bit of a plausibility strain for me — seal women seems more like something that could happen, and not incite an international incident.)

  3. This post was a really good articulation of why it’s so hard to articulate one’s feelings about this book! Seriously. This was exactly how I felt while reading The Brides of Rollrock Island. The plot was very thin, and each “chapter” felt more like an additional layer of community description rather than a plot point. Misskaella’s section was really the weakest but also the longest, which I find to be problematic. I never felt like I fully grasped her intent. I mean, I knew why she did what she did, but I wanted more of an illustration of the particulars.

    I didn’t really begin to connect to the story until Domnic’s section showed up. While troubling, I started to sense what this story was maybe really about. But then again, I’m still not fully sure of the ultimate message. With Margo Lanagan, it’s always hard to really KNOW what’s being communicated. I was really disappointed that the seal wives weren’t individuated at all. Daniel’s mother was the only seal wife with dialogue really, but I still didn’t get a sense that she was a singular person instead of part of a collective, external object thesis about these men. I wanted the seal wives to have humanity in spite of being from the sea.

    While the second half of the book brought the reader more out of this horrifying world view (particularly with Daniel’s section), I’m still not sure what this book meant in a way, and I felt very saddened by it. Honestly, I felt like I was reading about a social war. And, it’s not exactly a war between men and women. I don’t think so. It’s more a war against a way of life. I don’t know that I really articulated anything here either. What is this book really about? Is it about a misplaced longing for connection? I agree about the writing – Lanagan’s writing is beautiful and sophisticated, but puzzling…

  4. I’m another one on the fence. In some ways, I think this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. In other ways, it didn’t quite work for me. I think I could forgive the plot failings more easily if more of the characters felt vivid – but there were several that I never felt like I got close enough to, and a lot of them blur together a few months after finishing it.

  5. TeenReader says

    I am surprised to see the plot described as “thin”. It was not as rich and carefully constructed as, say, Bomb or Code Name Verity, but I thought the stories connected in some really satisfying ways. Also, I kind of liked the time period being a blur between past and present, it made the book seem more strange and mysterious, and I really appreciated the setting. Mark and I already had a discussion on some of the flaws on Crossreferencing (link above), and while Mark defended his position well, my thoughts haven’t changed. I think this is an excellent book, but I don’t know think I would be able to put it in my top three.

  6. I do think this is in my top three. I don’t know that it’s my top book of the year — I’m on the fence between this and Code Name Verity, but they’re such different and wonderful books!

    What I like best about it is that it stirs up all these complicated questions and then leaves you there, without any answers. It’s not about the way the world works; it’s about our anxiety about the way the world works as we start getting involved in romantic/sexual relationships. Are boys always only going to go for that beautiful girl over there? Am I only going to be able to have a relationship by totally sublimating who I am? Or am I doomed to sit on the outside like Misskaela, rejecting and rejected at the same time but still — needed, useful, somehow? How is it that we can know something is bad for us and bad for the community, and still find ourselves completely powerless to resist it?

    I think Lanagan is totally in control of her theme, but never willing to give us easy answers; she leads us into the dark places and then only partially leads us out again. I honestly haven’t read anything so willing to deal with these sorts of anxieties about love and sex, and the fear that good answers may not exist, since the great science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr, and in a year that didn’t have a book I loved as deeply as Code Name Verity it would be my choice for the gold, for sure.

    • Those were some cool observations Emily! I think you have a handle on Margo Lanagan’s intent. I like the idea that this book presents complex issues but then leaves it up to the reader to determine how they feel about the characters and the plot. Margo Lanagan’s work has always stayed with me long after I’ve finished, because there are so many unresolved grey areas. Her considerations are very adult in nature, and really force teens (and adults) to contemplate human relationships. I’m thinking of looking at this book in a new light based on your remarks.

      Still felt the characterization could have been better in a couple places though…

      • Barbara Moon says

        I like the exploration ( on many levels) of the relationship between desire and fulfillment. This was the unifying theme of the collective individual narratives for me. Very thought-provoking
        For me, the lack of individual characterization of the sea wives fit. Once they shed their coats, they lost their true identity and became mere objects. There could be no individual identity.
        Side note: Have to say I wept at the end when the infant clothing is revealed.

  7. Wow – I wrote this whole post two days ago and only just now noticed that it didn’t go up. So here’s my attempt to reconstruct it.

    Basically, I think you have misunderstood the intent of the book. The most important thing to remember about it is that it is a retelling of a piece of folklore, and from what I understand, a fairly close retelling of the traditional story. So, these complaints here:

    1) “There is an over-reliance on heteronormative binaries, for instance, a set up that forces certain conversations and begs for interpretation but is simplistic”

    2) “the plot is pretty thin anyway”

    3) “The very premise of much of the story – that the sea-wives impress upon whomever they first see, that they love and are loved automatically — this is the weakest thing of all, I think; it’s just THERE in order to propel the rest of it, but it’s sort of… magic”

    Don’t strike me as being correct or relevant. First, I completely disagree that the plot is thin, but to the extent that it is, that is because it is retelling a fairy tale-like story. The “plot” of BRIDES is not co-extensive with the story of selkies, it is the way Lanagan chooses to tell that story, which is with that amazing triangulation of voices and characters. Someone over on the CNV thread talked about telling a story from different angles, and I brought this book up– I think BRIDES blows away CNV in terms of narrative structure because of this jumping around in voices.

    As for the allure of the selkies, a couple of thoughts: most important, this is an essential characteristic of the pre-existing story, so not really in Lanagan’s hands to change. But, maybe more interestingly, remember that the mainlanders are not affected by the selkies in the same way — we are clearly meant to think that the allure of the selkies is directly tied to the corruption of Rollrock itself — I would argue that we are not supposed to let the men off the hook for falling in love with them (indeed, I think that’s the purpose of Dominic’s chapter) but complicit in their ensnarement.

    As for the heteronormative relationships, again – I think this is a side-effect of the folk story. Also, I think to have spread her net wider would have made the novel considerably more unwieldy. As it is, Lanagan is able to focus on this one type of relationship very closely, and I think that is to the story’s advantage.

    Second, I’m deeply troubled by these comments:
    1) “But I feel like I could write an analysis on any one aspect and then write a piece arguing the opposite using some of the same passages as support.”

    2) “I agree 100% that this is a text that seems to have something to say, only I’m not always sure what it’s saying, and some of what it seems to be saying is deeply troubling”

    Because I feel like this is a response that is borne of reading too many YA novels. From Chaucer and Shakespeare, to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, to Nicole Krauss and Philip Roth, multiple and conflicted meanings and troubling ones are the very definition of the most challenging, richest body of literature that we have in English. How would English scholars have a career if not by coming up with analyses that completely contradict those of other scholars? (he said snarkily, but still completely seriously). Indeed, I think this book poses a serious challenge to books like TFiOS and EVERY DAY where the meanings and author’s intentions are so obvious and surface level that it can be embarrassing.

    Finally, a minor point:
    1) “it turns out that a random Knocknee girl could have the same power”

    I don’t have a copy of the book right now (yay – teens are actually reading it!) but my memory is that it is made clear that the community has been searching out Trudle, so that she is not “a random Knocknee girl” but someone who they have found to have power. Also, we learn so little about Trudle that it is not at all unlikely that she could be descended from Rollrock.

    • Mark, I think you make some fascinating points, though ultimately I ended up disagreeing with you a lot.

      1) “that is because it is retelling a fairy tale-like story”
      But there are so many retellings out there which have rich plots! Yes, fairy tales are thin that way and it’s something every reteller has to counter. Lanagan, I suspect is doing different things and she seems profoundly uninterested in the sort of worldbuilding and system-of-magic which most fantasy readers expect. That’s fine–again, she’s doing something different–but it doesn’t mean that that readers can’t miss it.

      As I said in my comment above, I didn’t personally find the plot thin on a first read-through, though I suspect I might have questions the second time aroudn.

      2. As far as heteronormative relationships go, Lanagan does take a very brief stab at them, actually in the passage I pulled out in my review: “I realized I did not want to leave the front room, which was full of the seal-girl’s wonderful wild smell. It was as if the whole ocean had pooled in here, fish and salt water, weed and whale, seabirds slicing through the fresh air above. Could a girl fall under a seal-girl’s spell?” However, I do think that overall Karyn’s point stands–men are one way, women are another, seal-wives are a third thing entirely. I don’t see any of the narrators calling that into question and the only thing the text as a whole does to disrupt that is give us Misskaella and Trudle, both of which can also be slotted into a the category of witch.

      3. ” multiple and conflicted meanings and troubling ones are the very definition of the most challenging, richest body of literature that we have in English. ”
      Sure, but at least in my opinion, there’s a difference between having multiple and conflicted readings, which as you said is bread and butter for English academics, and not being able to have a reading because the book itself is so contradictory and conflicted. That’s still not exactly what I mean, so let me try it a different way: with Shakespeare (to choose an example I personally am familiar with because I like to argue from knowledge) the characters within a text might present contradictions, the text itself might even present contradictions. But the reader can create a reading which ultimately makes some sense of them. With BRIDES, and particularly with the issue of male/female relationships, I at least felt almost completely unable to do so. And I suppose that, despite the very obvious strengths of the book, is the reason I’m not going for gold for this one. Silver, I would be fine and happy with.

      • 1) fairy tale plots. Yes, of course there are fairy tale retelling with rich plots, but my point (perhaps poorly made) is that it is not a *requirement* of a fairy/folk tale. And I completely disagree that thin plots is something retellers have to “counter”. If a writer wants to do that, fine, but the thinness of fairy tale plots is, in my opinion, one of their great strengths, because they do allow for so many conflicting and multiple meanings (more on that below). To take a couple examples. Angela Carter was always great at retaining the fairy tale-like quality of the tales she retold, and sometimes she even simplified the plots more. Another one which you probably haven’t read since it’s not out yet is Catherynne Valente’s Six Gun Snow White, which again, retains a very simple plot and actually adds more layers of fairy and folk tropes. Both of these authors decided that instead of trying to complicate the plot they would complicate the meanings and themes. And that is what I think Lanagan is doing.

        2) So, what about those meanings. Is Hamlet crazy? Is is Lady Macbeth’s fault? These are basic plot points to each of these plays that basically no one knows the answer to. a “good” writer would have told us the answer so we could understand the plays, but Shakespeare withholds all judgement on the issues – in fact, goes out of his way to make it impossible for us to know. Yes, there is a difference between multiple and conflicted, but I think both are crucial, and I find nothing wrong with conflicted meanings at all. As for BRIDES, I just disagree with you – I think it is quite easy to construct an argument for the book as being about Misskaella, her rotten chilldhood and anger at being ugly, who goes on to use her powers to “get back” at the men of Rollrock by inflicting the selkies on them. But, then, you could argue that the island of Rollrock is a corrupted place, living out the same nightmare over and over because of the evil of the men who live there and their discontent with their women. These would be conflicted arguments, but both present. To go back to Shakespeare – do you really think that it is less possible to create sense of BRIDES than ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL? Because if so, you have a better handle on that play than I do. 🙂

        3) I don’t want to wade too deeply into this whole heteronormative thing, because I think it’s a dead end, so I’ll just say I don’t see how anyone could say “men are one way”, for example, when there are so many different types of men in the novel.

      • Karyn Silverman says

        For some reason it only lets me reply to Maureen, not Mark, but this a reply to the whole thread.

        1 – Fairy tale retellings. First of all, plot is not what’s thin in fairy tales — lots happens, and the journey (which is plot and movement) is a central component of fairy tales, in the classically structured tales that can be analyzed by/fit into Propp’s Morphology. But fairy tales and folklore are not the same. Folklore like the selkie tales is more like a collection of facts — there are selkies, they are beautiful, men can win them as wives if they steal their skins, and if selkies get their skins back they return to the ocean. There are some stories that illustrate this, but it’s lore, not tale. No plot, no plot requirement. And Lanagan isn’t writing a folklore collection, she’s writing a NOVEL. There are things we expect in novels that are different. The plot is thin and strikes me as being artificially constructed at times, and I think the artifice in particular is very problematic in the novel.

        Mark says, “this is an essential characteristic of the pre-existing story, so not really in Lanagan’s hands to change” — really? It’s in her hands to change anything. There is no witch required by selkie folklore to pull girls out of their seal selves, and yet Lanagan has made Misskaella pretty much the primary character. Also, I’m not sure I agree with your reading that Cordlin men aren’t affected, because I don’t think we have enough information, but I can see how your interpretation of that would make for an interesting reading and maybe make you look more kindly on the magic that I found weak.

        2. My problem with the heteronormative binaries was more with the binary issue; the heteronormative part is problematic only in that it helps point put how patently artificial the binaries are. People don’t come in binaries. People fall into interstitial places in their identities and behaviors. This simplifying of the world feels constructed to me, and constructed in order to illuminate the commentary on men and women and relationships. But it cheats the novel, because I find it strips away some depth. There are tiny hints to the contrary — mostly the passage Maureen cites with Bet wondering if a girl can fall under a seal-girl’s spell, but only hints. Misskaella calls forth a male from the sea, after all, and she and Trudle and Trudle’s little girls don’t seem to have anything to do with the seal women, indicating they can withstand the appeal. And the appeal, going back to 1, is acting upon them — you thought the Rollrock men were implicated, but I saw it as a pass. Women make men do bad things. Dominic is doing okay until Misskaella, a woman, calls forth Neme, a seal woman, and then he is powerless. Plus, we see Neme seeming upset that he might leave her, and that tosses all that we know about the seal-wives out the window and seems directly contradictory to their chronic longing for the sea.

        3. Mostly what Maureen said. Brides contradicts itself and raises questions not about men and women so much as about what the author was saying about men and women. Some of this comes down to interpretation, but I didn’t find myself wondering what the text said so much as what the author was trying to say. I’ve noticed I have used words like artifice and construction a lot, and I think the part that’s really bothering me here is that this is a structurally flawed book in ways that strike me as the result of authorial intent in terms of meaning, which is stifling the story. That’s what I meant by pedantic. Message-heavy. And I’m not sure I agree about conflicted readings. Multiple, yes, but passages in direct conflict and contradicting one another the way they do here I don’t think are good.

        4. “random Knocknee girl” — yes, they’ve been searching for her, but she’s still random. There is no apparent island connection. She knows to go around crossed, too, and rumors got back to Rollrock, implying this is a not unknown condition. Also, she never seems to do anything besides get pregnant and aside from needing someone there to provide the epilogue to Misskaella’s story, and maybe needing reason to have Daniel meet a girl as part of his character arc that culminates in setting the mams free, I don’t know what purpose at all Trudle serves. Artifice and weak plot.

        I still love the way Lanagan constructs sentences, but the more we discuss this the more this comes apart for me.

      • @Karyn:
        1) I’m willing to concede on the fairy/folk tale plot line thing – yes, Lanagan could have changed things – for the sake of argument. But I still don’t find the plot particularly thin. Perhaps the reason I reached for the fairy/folk tale angle was because that is how the plot strikes me–not “thin” the way a novel can be thin, but straightforward and concise the way a folktale is. At first that threw me (see my original goodreads review) but as I lived with the book I have come to see it as a major strength.

        I do want to pick on you (I hope in good humor) a little about this line, though:

        “The plot is thin and strikes me as being artificially constructed at times, and I think the artifice in particular is very problematic in the novel”

        You mean artifice like having a the first half of a novel constructed of an implausibly long quasi-confession, and the other half of an implausibly long “report”?

        2) “Women make men do bad things”. Wow, see that is one reading that I literally would NEVER have thought of on my own. *Maybe* Misskaella’s power’s make the men of Rollrock do bad things, but even in that case, the root cause there (in my view) is the bad things the men of Rollrock did to Misskaella in the first place. Do you really think that Dominic is powerless in the face of Neme? I found Dominic’s chapter to so incredibly heart-breaking because of the ways he tries to fool himself and his fiancee into believing that that was just nothing he could do. I suppose if you believe what Dominic tells himself and his fiancee then you have to believe it’s all Misskaella’a fault, but I didn’t believe him for a second – it all sounded like excuses to me.

        3) Maybe the basic problem I’m having here is with what you say here: “That’s what I meant by pedantic. Message-heavy.” It seems like you have a set meaning that you think that Lanagan was trying to convey (possibly “women make men do bad things”), and I just simply don’t find there to be anything so simple in the book at all. I can’t find it to be pedantic or message heavy, precisely because I find so many different meanings and messages lurking about in the corners. Which, again, I see as a good thing.

        As for “And I’m not sure I agree about conflicted readings. Multiple, yes, but passages in direct conflict and contradicting one another the way they do here I don’t think are good”. Obviously, this is a matter of taste, but I just don’t agree. I think passages in direct conflict are heavy on the ground of pretty much every “great” book I’ve ever read, and I find it to be intellectually bracing.

        • Karyn Silverman says

          Hah! I thought about that myself. It comes down to that sense of message, which might be something we can’t talk our way through. I never felt Wein had a message, just a story, and the contrivances worked within the frame she built. In my opinion. In Brides, they don’t. In my opinion.

          As far as the rest goes — straightforward and concise? Did we read the same book??

          “Women make men do bad things” was a bit facetious, but I did see a strand of that in here. Part of why I take Dominic more at his word than you do has to do with the attraction thing. What about Odger and Nase, both married, and still sneaking around with seal-girls? Over and over the text tells us, through different voices, that these women hold an attraction that is almost unbearable. They are sex personified (all that salty smelling warmth?). Even Bet is attracted by it. And that’s when it’s just you looking at and smelling a seal-girl who hasn’t turned her focus (and seemingly vast initial libido, untrammeled by, you know, the daily grind) on you. Once that happens, the text indicates, you probably don’t have a choice. That’s why that aspect of the magic is a weakness to me — it makes Dominic a much less interesting character than your reading would have him be. I saw him as a man trapped by Misskaella.

          And honestly, what bad things did the men of Rollrock do to Misskaella? The women treated her badly much more than the men did — she’s much more upset by her mother and sisters and how they treat her, no? (This is why I shouldn’t comment without my copy to hand, but it’s at school and I am not.) I thought she was punishing the women. Mostly by making their men not love them, and keeping them all for herself, albeit via the seal-wives. That’s what the babies are about, too — she cannot have a husband and babies, and it’s that wanting but not having plus the relentless teasing and using of her by the women in her family that incites her deep anger. She is her best and least angry self when she has Ean in her arms. (Heteronormative binary, what? There is nothing for a woman if she can’t have a husband and kids, on Rollrock. I’d much rather Missk were pissed off by that, which I know is my own bias, but is what I meant when I said I found lots of troubling subtext here.)

      • “straightforward and concise” – well, yeah. 1) Misskaella gets bullied, whatever, 2) She discovers her powers and unleashes the selkies, 3) the women of Rollrock start to leave, 4) the island is entirely selkies, rollrock men, and boys, 5) the boys release the selkies to the sea, 6) some of the boys come back, and it seems like rollrock might be on its way back to normal.

        Isn’t that why you were complaining about the plot being “thin”? I don’t really see how the plot can be both thin and not straightforward and concise. Can you be more explicit about what you see as the thinnness of the plot?

        I realize we’re not talking about CNV here, but shouldn’t that be a bit troubling if it’s plot is artificial but not in the service of any particular meaning or message(s)? Doesn’t it make more sense for a novel that is “pure” story to be *less* artificial? Maybe we’re just running into our separate biases about what a story should be.

        Yes, I suppose the women of Rollrock are as mean to Missk as the men are, but there’s still that lovely line when the first Rollrocker says no women would have him (or something) and Missk says “you never asked me”–she obviously holds a lot of anger towards them as well.

        I can completely see your interpretation of the magic/allure of the selkies, just as I can see mine (didn’t it at all seem to you that Dominic was protesting a bit too much?). That’s just another reason I think this novel is so rich.

  8. Oh – and thanks so much for the shout out to crossrefencing!

  9. Wanted to reply directly to Barbara Moon’s comment below mine, but for some reason there’s no reply option. In any case, I really like where Barbara is going with the lack of individuation of the seal wives. Upon further examination of my own reading of this book, perhaps I wanted this book to be something other than it was initially. The lack of singular identity among each seal woman bothered me in a way that the lack of individuation among the psychics in the Raven Boys did not bother me. While I loved Raven Boys, I will readily admit that Brides of Rollrock Island is definitely a more complex and intricate novel.

    So getting back to why I see what Barbara means regarding the collective identity of the seal wives… Based on her reading of the story, it would definitely work to have the seal wives never actually have concrete personalities, particularly if they’re just manifestations of someone else’s intent. I think I initially thought this story was going to be about how you can’t objectify individuals. While that’s certainly an undercurrent, it’s not the intent of the story. In reality, the men of the island aren’t objectifying individual women at all. They’re manifesting a kind of internal dream world by creating the seal wives. This discussion has really opened up a lot of interesting viewpoints! That shows you how rich Maro Lanagan’s writing is, that you can find your way inside of it from so many angles!

    • Barbara Moon says

      Thanks Kristen. I enjoyed reading your added perspectives. I agree that there is a lot to discuss about Rollrock.
      For me, this book frames the exploration of relationship between desire and fulfillment for all the characters, but certainly the men of the island, especially Dominic and Daniel, as well as Misskaella, and even the seal wives. Each have desires and each ultimately seeks fulfillment. Can fulfillment be achieved? What part does desire play in obtaining fulfillment? It is an interesting puzzle.

      • I found Dominic’s chapter very complex, and he was the character that I would argue had the most to give in the way of nuance and internal conflict. I feel like you could write a post just on him. I found myself deeply annoyed by him and yet also sad and sympathetic toward him. I kind of think you should have conflicting feelings toward people in real life, so I really liked his chapter. Daniel also was a very interesting character, though I thought he had less potential for discussion than his father.

        Throughout the course of the book, I wondered what exactly everyone really wanted – not just regarding the men and their desire for the seal wives, but also Bet Winch, Misskaella, Trudle, Lori…. the women who were not seal wives had such open-ended lives, and I would have loved to read more about Lori, who moved to Rollrock long after her mother and grandmother left. While her female relatives experienced rejection and hardship on Rollrock, Lori experienced loss in quick succession on the mainland and saw the island as a place to start over. Her chapter could really work into the concept of desire and fulfillment but in a different way than how it relates to the men and their desire for the seal wives. Interesting!

      • Karyn Silverman says

        Kristin, I love your take on Brides!

        I think the women are weirdly flat even in their own chapter arcs. Misskaella and the men tell these long summations of their lives, but we only see the other women in snapshots, and in the case of Bet especially, the women play small roles in the sections they narrate — Lory reveals the most of herself, but a lot of her section focus is what she sees on the island, and Trudle has no character at all and seems to exist just to conclude Misskaella’s story.

        (Mark is right that the easiest reading is that this is Misskaella’s story, which makes Trudle’s chapter forgivable, and the other women too, maybe, if they are in contrast to Misskaella, but if I read it that way a whole other set of issues presents.)

  10. This book reminded me of a sort of The Scorpio Races and Chime mashup. Mostly kidding 🙂 But unfortunately, this book didn’t work for me. When we start to talk about “intricate plotting”, sadly, that often means something that can become code for “overwritten”. Perhaps this is simply not my kind of book, but after reading it I felt very strongly about the lack of forward-moving plot and, while I can appreciate Lanagan’s amazing turns of phrase and stage-setting, those elements couldn’t stand up to the issues I had with it. Two clichéd phrases came to mind when I closed the book: the whole did not equal the sum of its parts; and, in the end, I felt like there was no “there” there.

  11. I’m just catching up on all the comments, and I’m kind of blown away by the differences in opinion. I felt this book was so rich, so compelling, so well-constructed, so thought-provoking that I’m sort of stunned that everyone doesn’t feel the same way!
    But just a few responses to other comments: Karyn, I think Misskaella was indeed punishing the women–but also the men. And why not? It wasn’t only the Rollrockers at large who treated her badly, it was her own family, especially her mother and sisters, who made fun of her and ignored her and took advantage of her and basically just thought of her as something “less.” Plenty to discuss and analyze there!
    I didn’t think the women characters were “flat.” For each character, we got exactly as much as we needed to know for their section. We needed to know more back story for Dominic and Daniel than we did for Bet and Lory, based on their particular role. I think this goes back to the comment about Lanagan being preeminently a short-story writer. I’m sure she could have fleshed out the stories of the other characters, but why? I realize you weren’t talking about the seal-wives with the “flat” comment, but I was also thinking about them, and I think that we didn’t hear more about them, and their lives and feelings, because for them, living on Rollrock wasn’t their real life. It was like Daniel’s experience in the sea: hazy and other-y.
    This is a book (like, dare I say, JELLICOE ROAD) that not only stands up to, but almost requires, a second and third reading. Each reading reveals more depth, more connections. I can see, based on the comments here, that there are elements that could cause disagreement, but every great book has those, and so far I haven’t read anything that changes my mind that this is one of the–if not THE–great books of the year.

  12. Elizabeth Burns says

    I adored this book; and my much more detailed post goes up tomorrow morning, but I’ll try to briefly touch on some points.

    I read this as very damning of the men of Rollrock, because of the choices they make. That it is choice is shown by Dominic’s father not making that choice; and other young boys/men leaving the island and not coming back as Dominic “I accidently got a sea wife, oopsie” Mallett. (I don’t recall if any men were show leaving on their own accord during the book.)

    And it is their choice, and for choices beyond sex as shown by Dominic’s thoughts toward his seal wife and then looking at Kitty and thinking how bitter or cold she would look in the future. Virginia Woolf said, “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” This is similar to what Dominic thinks in looking at Neme: “the girl only waited, her whole being, her whole future, fixed on me.” She is fixed on Dominic because he is her captor; her future as captive in entirely in his hands; and he prefers that to the real, messy relationship with a womam who comes ot him freely, warts and all.

    That there is so much meat to this for discussion, and differing points of view, is, I think, a strength of the book. It’s not whether my reading is right or wrong; it’s that it’s as supported in the text as anothers, and shows the complexity going on here.

  13. I just now returned to this discussion after reading Liz’s post on her blog about this book. There’s still so much to discuss. The funny thing about Lanagan is that even when you notice flaws in her work, you can’t help remembering it long after you’re through. I still think about Tender Morsels several years later. I would agree with Liz that the keeping of the seal wives against their will constitutes rape. Liz, I also liked your comparison between Virginia Woolf’s comment and Dominic’s view of why he ultimately chose Neme over Kitty. It’s very much the same thing, and it also reflects back on why the seal wives are merely external representations of an internal worldview/desire/collective emotional state from the men – and it does seem to reinforce a desire to preserve a certain way of life; perhaps a way of life that includes women being more subordinate to men (especially if you read this as early 20th Century, i.e. first-wave feminism).

    I disagree about the comparison between Jellicoe Road and this book though. You certainly learn more about Jellicoe Road by rereading, but I think that’s only to glean the subtle hints about the mystery from the past. That story is actually very concrete in nature in many respects and fairly cut and dry once you get to the bottom of it. I don’t see any of that in Rollrock, which to me doesn’t have any clear thesis statement about itself and actually seeks to confound the reader upon further examination. If you’ll notice, we’ve all to a certain extent questioned our own initial readings of this book after talking with each other. That’s not necessarily a weakness, and I’m still not sure whether I think that issue applies to this book as a weakness. If Lanagan’s intent is to create grey area in the minds of readers, then perhaps she did succeed…

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