Monday, March 17, 2014

Money can't buy you happiness, though it can buy you a beautiful wife

I reacted to The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan, in much the same way that I reacted to the only other novel by her I have read, Tender Morsels.  It was a painful and difficult read because of the way it draws attention to gender roles and the dynamics of power.  But it was ultimately very satisfying.

The Brides of Rollrock Island is set on a very small island where everyone makes their living on the sea, and everyone knows each other.  They are not a beautiful race, but they are hardy and loyal and stick to what they know.  But one day, the short and fat and ugly witch Misskaella changes all that by bringing a beautiful woman out of a seal.  The seal woman catches sight of one of the island men and the two are locked together, the woman utterly devoted to the man, and the man truly in love with the seal-life who will never speak a word against him.  Soon, all the men want seal-wives, and the women of Rollrock leave the island to seek happiness elsewhere.  But how happy are the men with their new, obedient wives?  And how happy can a woman be, no matter how in love she might be, when she is always longing to be somewhere else?

It probably took me a week to get past the first 70 pages or so of this book.  I honestly considered just returning it to the library unfinished because it was not working for me.  But many people I trust told me that the book is so good, so I persevered.  And I'm so glad I did because this was such a rewarding read on many levels.

I think Ana does a fantastic job of explaining what it is that makes this book so good, so I will refer you to her.  There's little that I can add to her post that is more than a "Me, too!" but I will spend some time describing something that I think is an important aspect of the book and I haven't seen touched on very much before now.

Part of what makes The Brides of Rollrock Island so powerful is how quickly things become "normal."  When the seal women first make their appearance, everyone judges the men who succumb to their lust and desire, no matter how beautiful the seal woman is.  The men love the idea of a woman who will never question or nag the way that their hardy Rollrock wives do.  And so the women of Rollrock leave, to be replaced very quickly by seal-wives.  And soon enough, no one even really remembers what it was like to have other women on the island.  In fact, soon enough, people forget what it's like to have women on the island, period, who were not seals first.  And one of the most chilling aspects of this novel is how immune you become to the horror of events that you find normal (like, you know, slavery, rape, racism, violence ...).  None of the boys on the island spends a lot of time thinking about girls because there aren't any around.  The men on the island don't think anything is wrong with taking a seal from her life in the ocean and forcing her to live with him for the rest of her days, just because that is what he wants.  And there's nothing wrong, either, with selling half your fortune and most of your soul to a witch so that you can have a wife as beautiful as everyone else's, even if you never thought you wanted one in the first place.  Lanagan makes it so painfully clear that we are all creatures of habit, and how difficult it can be for one person to wake up and realize that something is not quite right.  And she does not place blame anywhere, exactly, but shows what an uphill battle we are all fighting.

I'll leave you with one quote (and I apologize, because it is a long one) that really stood out to me and made this clear:
I remembered Aran standing shocked at the cupboard door, the padlock in his hand, and all of us staring at it.  But it was not the padlock keeping the skins in the cupboard, it was what had hooked and locked it there in the first place:  the whole island's agreement.  Let us take these coats, by force or by trickery, from their rightful owners, Rollrock men had decided, and forever keep them apart.  They may have thought that this would gain them their own happiness, but they might as well have vowed, Let us all stay miserable together - dads, mams and lads alike - to the end of our days! 
And all the men had agreed this - even a man as kind as my own dad.  Against so many grown men and what they wanted, what hope did one boy have of bringing relief - of bringing maybe happiness, even! - to our poor mams, to our poor dads?


  1. "And one of the most chilling aspects of this novel is how immune you become to the horror of events that you find normal." Yes - so well put. Loved this post, Aarti.

  2. And you went on? Wow

  3. This was a really thought-provoking review that made me keen to pick up the book, I love this kind of examination of gender roles.

  4. Anonymous3/17/2014

    Okay, as with Tender Morsels, this sounds upsetting and offputting in some ways, but I also do admit that you and Ana have wonderful taste and make an excellent case for Margo Lanagan. I shall cautiously put aside my reservation about reading this type of story and give The Brides of Rollrock a try.

  5. I've read stories on this subject before and find them interesting if scary - I'd forgotten this one. The theme is hard-hitting and, to use a word you used, chilling. I like that you carried on the review to discuss the normalisation. A lot to think about.

  6. Lanagan is an author I hate to love because she always makes me feel peevish - sort of angry and sad and hopeful and tired all at the same time.

  7. This is a book that the author makes you work for the end satisfaction. It isn't easy but it is powerful. and you have demonstrated this with your post.


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