Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

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Please note, big spoiler alert as the following is intended for those presenting this book, not reading it for pleasure. 

 Set in the folk story tradition, three generations on a small isolated island and the appearance of selkies (called sea-wives).  The story is told from the perspective of many residence of the island of Rollrock.  Daniel Mallet is a small child at the start of the story, he sets the scene of a town under the malevolent influence of a witch called Misskaella.  The next story is of Misskaella as a child herself and how she became a witch.  We see that the sea-wives are part of this communities suspect past and certainly she is an unsettling reminder, a throwback.  Here we start to see the cyclic nature of the story as Misskaella, scorned by her community makes a living our of drawing the sea-wives out of the seals.  None of the sea-wives can keep a girl baby, all grow sickly and have to be returned to the sea as seals. 

 All sea-wives long for the oceans and seal life and many show signs of depression including suicide. As the sea-wives enchant more and more men, the natural women start leaving with their children, taking the tales of the men and their unnatural habits with them to the mainland.  The sea-wives are compliant and loving but are as enslaved by Misskaella’s magic as the men. 

 It is Daniel’s generation, the grandchildren of the first men to take sea-wives, that finally restore the sea-wives at the same time also leaving to become seals.  This is the climax of the story and the most daring and dramatic moments.

 The story ends with the return of natural women to an island of just men and a few boys and the death of Misskaella.  The cycle is complete…for now.

 Presentation:

 This book is definitely for older readers, High School and adults.  Misskaella lays with a man she draws from a bull seal which is fairly graphic, the discussion of unnatural acts and the complex relationships caused by the appearance of the sea-wives.  Some men run away from their wives, others hide sea-wives from their families. Trundle (Misskaella’s apprentice) has her way with a number of the men in the community and bears a string of daughters.  Scenes of suicide from the misery caused also mean this books is for a more mature mind.  It would be a great book for a Book Club.

 Folklore –

Much of the book is based on the folklore of Ireland and Scotland, particularly the Shetland islands. Orkney is closely connected to the legends of the selkies and it makes me wonder if it’s not Rollrock in disguise. 

Seahearts in the book are described as a type of  molluscs washed up on beaches around the island.  They are good to eat when fresh but can not be stored as they quickly decay.  Analogous with the sea-wives as though they are beautiful, wither and die when away from the sea.  

In reality seahearts are seed pods that travel across the Atlantic from tropical countries.  They are prized as good luck charms, especially the heart shaped ones. 

A compare/contrast the folklore with the story and see how Margo used the legends to tell her story.

Heredity –

Misskaella inherits her gift from a distant ancestor who is only know from one picture kept locked away by the family.  It is suggested she was from the time when men took sea-wives and forgot their natural ones.  It is known as a time of misery for the island and Misskaella is shunned as she reminds her community of those terrible half-forgotten times.

Misskaella’s family are know as a family that did have a sea-wife in their history, much to the embarrassment of Misskaella’s mother who’s family are ‘pure human’.

There is also a clear separation between children born to natural women and boys born to sea-wives.  Sea-wife children are tall, may have their mother’s straight dark hair and large eyes and carry themselves with some of the sea-wives grace. 

What makes us who we are? How much of our parents makes up who we are? If we are our parents children, are we doomed to make the same mistakes as them?

Belonging and Discovery:

This book deserves to be on HSC reading lists, it ticks all the boxes.

 Belonging –

Misskaella never belongs within a community that is constantly reminded by their ancestors wickedness.  By her behaviour she makes it that no one belongs. This leads to misery in a community that are enchanted to be able to do nothing to resolve the situation.

Ironically, Misskaella having the gift she does ties her closely with her community, they can not do without her. 

When the wives all return to the sea they take their children with them leaving a town of only men.  Some of these boys are returned to their fathers but part of them always belongs to the sea.

 Dominic, Daniel’s father, has to make a decision to either stay with his natural betrothed on the mainland or go with a sea-wife that Misskaella maliciously draws for him.  It is important to note that place (either the bustling mainland town or the sleepy forgotten village) changes in significance as he moves from one wife to another. He decides he’s just been given a precious treasure which puts me in mind of bible passages Matthew 6:21 “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  It is Dominic’s story that probably most spells out what it means to belong to a place.

Discovery –

There are all sorts of discoveries, many of them not positive in his book.  Starting with Misskaella discovering the ancestor she resembles she then the awakening of her gift and it’s attempted suppression by her family and an elder of the community.  She finds that she’s not just short, dumpy and dark but special and belongs to the legends of her island. 

The community discovering sea-wives is fast.  At first you see it as a covert, shameful thing but quickly as more men take sea-wives it becomes more acceptable, even preferable. 

Daniel on a trip to the mainland first discovers girls is a great little story.  His great surprise and working out that his half finished woman is actually what the parents referred to as a girl.  The innocent admission that he had never met one before is one of the lighter moments in the book.

When Daniel and his friends find the cupboard that their mother’s seal skins are kept in is a turning point in the story.  At first it is a joke, then they face the wrath of angry men that have their secret discovered.  Worst of all, when those boys go home smelling of the sealskins, a number of the sea-wives despair and commit suicide.  The truth that the boys’ fathers keep their beloved mothers prisoners is enough to force the boys into action.  The flight of the mams is the climax to the book and a complicated plan put together by Daniel and his friends.

I guess even the sealers and their discovery of the mottled skinned seals that when cut open reveal the boy inside is significant as it gives the community of men hope that not all is lost.

The last discovery is in the last few pages, when Trundle is following the instructions left by Misskaella for after she dies.  Trundle is to bury a box with Misskaella, when Trundle opens it she opens it she finds three tiny newborn smocks all three with boys names on them.  We know Misskaella had one when she lay with the bull seal but the discovery of the other two reminds you of Misskaella’s humanity.

This is a slow starter of a story, unlike the others so far, but well worth the climax and reveal at the end.

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