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metaphortunate son ([personal profile] metaphortunate) wrote2013-01-18 20:55

The Brides of Rollrock Island

What I ended up reading was The Brides of Rollrock Island (alternate title: Sea Hearts.) You know that story that was being forwarded around last year, about that little Greek town where people live forever? If you read that and thought romantically that it sounded kind of nice, a small old-fashioned community where people actually know their neighbors and have some kind of connection to their place, go ahead and read the first hundred pages or so of Rollrock Island. Think about what it could be like like to live in a small community where everyone knows everyone and no one likes you. Think about an old-fashioned community where there are strict roles, and it feels like you don't fit into any of them, until slowly you realize that unpaid drudge, burden on your family is a role, and every day your family and neighbors crush it in tighter around you.

The Brides of Rollrock Island is, among other things, a feminist fable about various traditional roles that women are supposed to fill - seductive vision, good mother, mystery, locus of desire, yin nature, nagging wife, lunatic, witch - and how those roles poison and destroy the lives of fucking everyone they touch. Even the women who are good at them. Even, to some degree, the men. I mean, the book isn't just a parable, it's not Animal Farm for ladies instead of Communism. Not that Animal Farm isn't a great book, but Rollrock Island is slipperier. It has layers. It's a harsh examination of love and desire and entitlement. It's poetry. I mean really beautiful poetry.

This is my favorite review of it. There are other good ones.

A number of reviewers say that they are not quite sure what Ms. Lanagan was trying to say. But I think I know. You don't know until you get to the very end, though, and you find out that Misskaella gave three babies back to the sea.

How many times did she call the bull seal up from the sea for herself? At least three; but there was no sign that the sealwives were more fecund than other women, there seems no reason to believe that every seal mating leads to a birth. Certainly every human mating does not. Misskaella may have called that bull seal to her thirty times. And every single time she let him go.

Any one of the men could have let their seal wives go, at any time. That's the answer. The seal spell was not overwhelming or will-destroying. They could have broken the spell, any of them. But they never did. Not a one of them. They deserved all the suffering they got; and more, much more, because for all that patriarchy hurts men too, the book is pretty clear about who it hurts most.

(Seal woman: You paid a witch to kidnap us, you destroyed our bodies and our minds, you locked us up, and you made our lives miserable for years upon years, to the point where we living literally envied the dead.

Human man: Yeah, but we suffered too! We lost you when you escaped!)

And the bleakest part is the clear implication that this had happened before, that Misskaella is the descendant, the remnant of the last witch's work. That the oldest women on the island, and maybe the men too, feebly try to prevent it from happening again. And it doesn't work. And perhaps Daniel Mallett's great-granddaughter will be born ugly and grumpy and with an affinity for seals, and everyone on land and sea will get ready to suffer again.

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ETA: To clarify, Rollrock Island is not about Ikaria! The NY Times article is about how healthful and nice it can be to live in a small, tight-knit community, and the book is about how nightmarish it can be to live in such a community. But they are not about the same community.
cahn: (Default)

[personal profile] cahn 2013-01-19 05:55 (UTC)(link)
...okay. Not reading your post, because it sounds interesting!

Though I'm not sure I'll be able to get through it. I don't think I've ever made it through a full-length Lanagan novel, though she's a beautiful writer, because they are all so painful. And -- I grew up in a small community where everyone knew everyone else and people, I guess, liked me well enough? And it was still terrible because I didn't belong there and we all knew it, although I don't think I or my peers could have articulated it at the time. So, um. I may be bringing some baggage to this particular one :)
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[personal profile] cahn 2013-01-19 06:20 (UTC)(link)
ahahahaha. I was particularly thinking of Tender Morsels ...now that I think of it, that may have been the only one -- I may have given up on Lanagan after that. You have just made it about ten times more likely I will pick this up!

(Though have you read her short story "Singing My Sister Down"? That's a powerful poetic story, too, and I recommend it.)
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[personal profile] karenhealey 2013-01-20 09:33 (UTC)(link)
THE SHORT STORIES THE SHORT STORIES OH PLEASE READ THEM. There are... four collections, I think.

They are so good. And some of them are grim, but they come in grim little packages and the prose and her VOICE and oh. Read them read them all.
lovepeaceohana: A tilted artist's rendition of a clear blue ocean with sky and clouds above; text reads "now bring me that horizon..." (Default)

er, this comment now has spoilers

[personal profile] lovepeaceohana 2013-01-19 06:39 (UTC)(link)
I love selkie stories - for sure picking this one up! Thanks for the recommendation. (I've read the spoilers though, because I can't help it. We'll see how they hold up.)

eta: I've just now finished it. That was - beautiful, but painful. I don't think I succeeded at reading it as a feminist fable though, because I kept being struck by the mothering relationships: the cruelty of Missk's mam when she realizes that Missk "hearkens back;" how well and truly Missk treasures her young son (I was in TEARS at the end of that, and again telling my partner today about it); Daniel's relationship with his mam; Trudle at the end with her girls. That comes of my own position as a mother, myself, especially Daniel's second chapter, his anger at the thought that the mams might prefer to die than to live so miserably, overwhelmed by his need to see his own mam happy. It's a slippery thing, as you said, and it does come down to that: the men could have broken their own spell, could have set the seal-women free, and they chose not to. I also admit to some horror at the thought of the seal-lads being returned to land-lads, unconsenting - I do not agree that they had the right, any more than they had any rights to the seal-women in the first place.

The very pettiness and smallness of the people, too, and their disdain for the mainland - that has sent something in me ringing, and I'm not quite sure what it is yet.
Edited (read the book, wanted to reply more in-depth) 2013-01-27 09:04 (UTC)
wordweaverlynn: PA license plate reading NATIVE (PA)

[personal profile] wordweaverlynn 2013-01-19 12:23 (UTC)(link)
Think about what it could be like like to live in a small community where everyone knows everyone and no one likes you. Think about an old-fashioned community where there are strict roles, and it feels like you don't fit into any of them, until slowly you realize that unpaid drudge, burden on your family is a role, and every day your family and neighbors crush it in tighter around you.

No need to think. I can remember.
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[personal profile] wired 2013-01-23 21:37 (UTC)(link)
Added to the list. Sounds delicious!