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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!
Filed under: Contenders, Fiction, Predictions, Pyrite
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.
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