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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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.