The novel opens with a scene involving a small group of boys walking along a beach, searching for "sea hearts" for their mothers. The children seek to avoid an old woman whom they refer to as the witch, Misskealla. The story then shifts and the reader meets Misskaella again, now narrating the action, and recalling her own childhood growing up on Rollrock Island. Misskaella is the youngest girl of a large family. Like most of the others on the island, her family has little money. Most of the men go out to the sea as fishermen, most of the life of the island revolves around the traditional rhythms of courtship, marriage and children.
Click here to see the rest of this review
As a physically unattractive woman with no suitors, Misskaella cannot participate in this life. However, she discovers she possesses magical powers, particularly in relation to the seals who come to shore of the island. Misskaela goes to the beach one night and summons an attractive man out of a male seal. After physical intimacy with this shapeshifted male, she permits him to re-enter the seal skin he briefly shed. Nine months later, she gives birth to a child, her pregnancy unnoticed because of her girth and her choice of loose clothing. However the baby grows sick and she realizes it needs to return to the sea.
Misskaella then uses her powers in a slightly different way. She calls beautiful women out of the bodies of female seals. The men of the island all desire seal brides, making Misskaella wealthy by paying her to give them shapeshifted brides. The human women of the island find they have no mates because nearly all the men want a magical seal bride.
As in the selkie legends from which this story is drawn, the husbands keep the seal women with them by hiding their seal coats. The seal women feel sad, exiled from their lives in the sea. All the seal women give birth to half-seal sons. Eventually, a group of these boys, born of seal mothers and human fathers, makes a plan to steal back all their mothers' seal coats, which are kept together in the same place. The boys let their mothers know of their plan, and the seal women weave blankets out of seaweed. These blankets enable their children, born into human bodies, to return to the sea with their mothers, transforming into seals.
Best part of story, including ending:
Margo Lanagan writes beautifully. However, it seems odd that such a large percentage of the men insist on having seal brides. Only one man in the novel is mentioned as being the exception. It made the book seem a bit flat that the men had so little individuality.
Best scene in story:
The scene where Misskaella takes a seal-man as a lover has a mood of magic and strangeness.
Opinion about the main character:
Misskaella is too vindictive to be an admirable or sympathetic character.