Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan


September 12, 2012 by Heidi

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo LanaganTitle: The Brides of Rollrock Island [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Margo Lanagan [Website|Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone—Yay!
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Published: September 11th, 2012 by Knopf BFYR
Format: Hardcover; 320 pages
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley
Challenge: YA/MG Fantasy Challenge

On remote Rollrock Island, men go to sea to make their livings—and to catch their wives.

The witch Misskaella knows the way of drawing a girl from the heart of a seal, of luring the beauty out of the beast. And for a price a man may buy himself a lovely sea-wife. He may have and hold and keep her. And he will tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into those wide, questioning, liquid eyes, he will be just as transformed as she. He will be equally ensnared. And the witch will have her true payment.

Margo Lanagan weaves an extraordinary tale of desire, despair, and transformation. With devastatingly beautiful prose, she reveals characters capable of unspeakable cruelty, but also unspoken love.


Melancholy.  If I had to capture Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island in one word, melancholy would be the one.  Melancholy is sad, but also thoughtful; beautiful and heartbreaking–as was this tale.  The Brides of Rollrock Island isn’t a streamlined book.  Told from six varying points of view our tale begins in the middle, reverses to the beginning, and moves forward to the end with a motion that indicates that this is a story that has happened before, and one that can happen again.  The age old adage that history is doomed to repeat itself is ever present in Lanagan’s book–we know roughly what will happen because it has all happened before, and we end with the unshakable knowledge that it is only a matter of time before events take a similar course once again.

The Brides of Rollrock Island is a book with no heroes or villains, it is a book where every man, woman, and child falls victim to their humanity or lack thereof.  Who do we point fingers at?  Who do we blame when things go wrong?  The answer is complicated beyond our ability to grasp when we see clearly each sides’ motivations.  The men of Rollrock cannot help but be bewitched and enraptured by the seal women who come to shore, the selkies cannot help bewitching or having hearts ever torn between the sea and the men they love, and how can we blame a woman who has endured many cruelties for dooming others to share what touch of happiness she has known?

If it seems as if this is another review where I will talk little of the story and much of the atmosphere, you are correct.  I firmly believe it is best for readers to open The Brides of Rollrock Island with a mystery hanging over their head, knowing only that it will be breathtaking, but there are some details I will share.  The Brides of Rollrock Island has a haunting and sad air about it, much like a Gothic novel, and while one could impose its time as early 20th century, the story also remains timeless in a manner that is rarely captured.  The island of Rollrock itself embodies the notion of setting as character with a spirit, personality, and story of its own.  It will make you long to breathe salt in the air, spend your days on rocky shores, and gaze into the sad, dark eyes of wild creatures.

One of the most unique aspects of The Brides of Rollrock Island is the way it tells a very adult story through the eyes of children and young adults.  Each narration in the book is from the eyes of a child or young adult, and as they age into adulthood we stumble into the point of view of another, learning to see the island and its people in new ways.  Creating the perfect crossover story, Lanagan has written a tale that will captivate young and old alike with an ebb and flow of characters that matches the ever changing sea itself.  Our characters grow, our views of them morph from pity to understanding to admiration to scorn as we experience The Brides of Rollrock Island from nearly all angles.

Nearly, I say, because there is one point of view that remains elusive–that of the sea brides themselves.  I actually didn’t realize this upon reading, until it was pointed out to me by Catie in her review.  I’ve decided, however, that this is not a point of complaint for me.  I actually kind of love that while we are given a small glimpse of their souls, the selkie women remain largely mysterious and otherworldly.  As humans, we so often need human (or part human) narrators to understand those creatures of myth, and The Brides of Rollrock Island is no exception.  I would love to understand the sea wives, but in the end I’m not sure that would be fair to them.  Their men, children, and those who lived elsewhere certainly never fully understood these women, so who am I to do so?

Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island is a stunning and beautiful work of fantasy, one that is as cold as it is rich, and as lyrical as it is cruel.  It was one of my most anticipated reads of 2012, and it did not disappoint–on the contrary–it exceeded all possible expectations and has been one of my favorite reads this year.  I had intended to read this one as a read along with Jen and Heather, but alas, real life (and hurricanes) got in our way and we never really aligned–still, it’s a wonderful work I’m looking forward to discussing now that we’ve finished!

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Without a doubt, I loved Margo Lanagan’s beautifully stunning prose.  I’ve heard repeatedly her other work described as disturbing, dark, and weird, but as I like this sort of thing, I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Recommended for: Fans of The Scorpio Races (love Thisby? Rollrock could exist in the same world and time), The Secret of Roan Inish, Celtic folklore, the ocean, and timeless historical fantasy set in our own world.

Real life repercussions of reading this book:

For anyone who’s loved The Brides of Rollrock Island and hasn’t seen The Secret of Roan Inish, I couldn’t recommend this movie more.  One of my favorite childhood movies, this film holds up, and is the foundation of my love for the beautiful and sad selkie lore.

Get a second opinion:
The Reclusive Reader – “The Brides of Rollrock Island was an absolutely fascinating, grim, and compelling read that I will never forget.”
The Readventurer – “This book is absolutely brilliant though, both in its poetic beauty and in its technical precision.”
Jen Ryland – “The Brides of Rollrock Island is a lyrical tale of revenge, betrayal, forgiveness and hope.”


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  1. You know, as I reading I didn’t quite put it together that all the narratives are told from the POV of a child or young adult, but yes you’re right! I agree that this book did almost feel Gothic in nature, it’s dark and “heavy”, not so much in content, but in mood. I totally agree with you: even with the unforgettable characters in Brides (Misskaella, I’m thinking of YOU), the mysterious, magical atmosphere is the real star of the book.

    So glad you enjoyed this one Heidi and it lived up to your expectations. I’ve enjoyed discussing it with you and Jen:)

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Heather! I’ve enjoyed discussing it as well. =)

      Yeah, I noticed the PoV age thing when I was thinking about the discussion of this book as YA (many have said it isn’t really). I kind of love Misskaella, and have a pretty good feeling that had I been in her shoes, I might have ended up very similarly.

  2. Wow, your blog looks amazing!! Kudos to your boyfriend (I assume) for the great drawing up there. And kudos to you for this really well thought out review! Did you love that ending as much as I did? I know it’s kind of vague and…well, MELANCHOLY but I adored it. I can definitely see your point about the selkie bride POV.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Catie!! Yep, my boyfriend drew the header, and another techie friend helped me set everything up on a hosted site. Yay for having control over my CSS again! And YES, I adored this book, and the ending. I actually kind of like vague endings. :)

  3. You could not have said ANYTHING that would make me more likely to pick this book up immediately. “For fans of the Scorpio Races.” SOLD.

    Your review was fantastic on its own though, you definitely made this one of the next books I’ll be picking up!

    • Heidi says:

      Yay! I hope so Allison. I really felt that Rollrock felt like Thisby, and though the actual stories were very different they were both very lyrical and compelling. I’m excited to see what you think!

  4. Jen R says:

    Fantastic review! And I did notice the age of the POV characters, only because I had that “is this really YA?” internal debate, and that’s where I came out. No, this is not typical YA, but (as you know) I really loved it as well.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Jen! Yes, that’s how I thought about it as well. It’s certainly a crossover book that blurs a lot of lines and doesn’t need to be strictly shoved into one category or the other, but the age of the narrators at the times when they are narrating clearly says YA to me.

  5. molly says:

    What a fantastic review! This synopsis didn’t really grab me, and I have a much better idea of what to expect from this book now. Thanks for sharing!

    PS i like your new design!

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Molly! This is certainly one of those books that is much more than its synopsis. It’s probably not for everyone, but for those who enjoy the writing style, it’s going to be an inevitable success.

  6. Though I am sure that this book was gorgeous and I do have it high up on my TBR – it actually might be the first NG book I pick up after I get through the library books – I am still wary to read it. I tried reading Tender Morsels by Lanagan years ago, and then again a few months ago and I just couldn’t do it. You know that I love a disturbing tale but for some reason I couldn’t get through Tender Morsels, it was too much for me.

    I really love that you described this one as having Gothic elements because that is just my favorite. I am still excited to give this one a try, I really don’t think I’ll be disappointed!

    • Heidi says:

      I don’t think you’ll be disappointed at all, Alyssa! From those who have read more Lanagan, every one of them has said that Brides is THE book to start with. It’s much less shocking/more tame than her other work (or so I’m told, I have not yet tried to read Tender Morsels–but I will).

  7. elena says:

    I was already sold at the standalone (yay!!) part so I placed a hold at my library for this book! :) This sounds like such an interesting premise, certainly different from the typical YA. The writing does seem very haunting and melancholic. Beautiful review, Heidi!

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Elena! I’m so glad you have a hold on it. I’m totally with you on the stand alone joy (obviously), and this is just such a unique and beautiful book. Different than most of the YA that’s out there today–I hope you love it! 😀

  8. I have been curious about this book since first hearing about it. I really like stories steeped in myths and legends, and this story seems to promise that. I love that this seems to be an atmospheric book! There are so many books out there right now that focus on action, but I’m assuming from your review and the comparison you draw to Thisby that this is something more than simply that. I’m still debating whether I should start with this one or her Tender Morsels, but I definitely need to read some Margo Lanagan books!

    • Heidi says:

      Amanda, this was my first Margo Lanagan, but from what I’ve seen others say, it’s probably the best one to start with. I think others get a little disturbing (to the point that many people I know have stopped reading them), but many have said if you want to try Lanagan, Brides is the place to start!

      This book doesn’t really have a lot of action, but at the same time is never slow or boring, if that makes sense? It is very atmospheric, quiet, and haunting. I hope you do pick it up, I’m excited to see what you think. :)

  9. I feel like the worst person EVER for saying this, but I’ve had this book on my shelves since…wait for it…JUNE! I’ve been so skeptical about reading a Margo Lanagan, simply because the reviews for Tender Morsels were all over the place, but I have heard that Brides of Rollrock Island is a much better place to begin with her. I’ve been reading a lot of reviews of this one and I have to say that yours is just so beautifully written, Heidi! It is evident how much you adored this novel and the passion you felt for it, so I definitely have to check it out ASAP now. Yet another lovely review, dear! :) I’ll be back to thank you for being so convincing once I pick up this one! 😀

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Keertana! Please do come back and tell me all about it when you get there. This is dark, but not disturbing in the way I’m told some of her other work is. I actually can’t wait to give Tender Morsels a shot just to see if I can handle it, because as you said, the reactions are just so all over the place. I really did love this one, it’ll probably make my top 10 of 2012. Don’t worry though, since June isn’t THAT bad. 😛

  10. I’m so excited to read this, especially now that you’ve invoked The Scorpio Races. I’m a big fan on the atmospheric book, and I have a really soft spot for anything remotely celtic, so when I heard that this book was about selkies, I was automatically IN. It’s a good sign, as always, that you loved it!

    • Heidi says:

      OMG Amy, you will love this book. Yes to all of those things. It’s atmospheric and beautiful, and totally Thisby-esque. This may be my favorite selkie story in any format ever.

  11. Sandy says:

    Ooo, this book sounds so good! And even though I haven’t finished THE SCORPIO RACES yet (life gets in the way too many times), I do love the atmospheric setting–if this book is anything like TSR, I know I’ll enjoy it. Thanks for convincing me to pick this one up 😀

    • Heidi says:

      Yay! Glad to do it, Sandy. It is very atmospheric like TSR. It’s less romantic, and more haunting, but they share a lot of qualities that make me think that fans of one will like the other. I hope you end up liking it (and that life doesn’t get too in the way 😛 ).

  12. […] you couldn’t possibly love a book I dislike (you may be crazy but), I suggest picking up The Brides of Rollrock Island instead to achieve that “literary” and “haunted” feel that I […]

  13. […] fell utterly in love this year with Margo Lanagan’s most recent book, The Brides of Rollrock Island, and since then have been wanting to try some of her older work.  I was aware after reading a […]

  14. Mara A. says:

    I personally didn’t like THE BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND simply because I prefer books with more of a point. However, I never did read it from the standpoint of (for lack of a better word) a “cautionary” tale, which might have changed my perspective and disappointment into something more positive. I do have to agree that the writing was beautiful. :)

    Coincidentally, THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH is one of my all-time favorite movies! :)

    • Heidi says:

      Oooh, I love that you’re such a fan of Roan Inish! I’m sorry you didn’t really like Brides of Rollrock, but I’m glad I was able to give you a different perspective to it. I think that Lanagan’s writing in general will not be for every reader.

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