Sea Hearts - Margo Lanagan, Eloise Oxer, Paul English

I got this on audio from AudioBookSync.


Wow, this book is weird.


There's something peculiarly haunting about selkie folklore. I can picture a careworn, exhausted mother telling the story to her daughter. Once the women could swim free, before they were robbed of their skins. I can see a father, still mourning the loss of his wife from childbirth, telling it to his young son. The women don't want to leave their husbands and children, but they're torn, and the sea is in their nature, and someday they must return to it.


The symbolism of the story is so very direct: when the man sees the selkie women, carefree and beautiful and happy, he is enchanted, and his enchantment quickly turns to acquisitive lust. He steals a skin and thereby imprisons the maiden, turning her from a creature of the wild seas to an obedient wife. He keeps her skin--her agency--locked away, and without it, she is utterly dependent upon him, unable to leave, unfit to seek the freedom of the ocean. But since this is a fairy tale, the skin cannot remain hidden forever. When the selkie gets it back, she abandons not only her greedy husband but usually her children as well. Is this, too, a metaphor? An attempt to explain to a child why a mother might leave, either through death or by her own volition? And which is the happy ending? I suppose it depends upon who is telling the story.


But anyway, Lanagan took a different path. While the theme of selkie freedom is of course intrinsic to the story, she leaves the agency metaphor alone. In fact, despite a massive narrative cast, the only set of characters who are never given voices are the selkies themselves. Throughout the story, they remain mute, stripped of self-expression along with their skins. 


The oddest aspect of Lanagan's version, and the part I can't wrap my mind around, is that in her story, the root cause of all the evil is a wicked witch. In the end, the men may be weak for bowing to temptation, but since there are evil spells involved, they must not be all that bad for imprisoning the selkies, forcing them into marriage, effectively raping them, and ignoring their overwhelming depression. Clearly it's all the fault of that wicked (female) witch. There's an overarching theme of evil begetting evil--after all, we get to see how the evil witch becomes an evil witch--but I couldn't help but feel that her presence trivializes things a bit. Or maybe not. Maybe Lanagan doesn't see temptation as an excuse. I suppose it's all down to interpretation.



I'm not sure it's something I would have picked up myself, but I definitely found Sea Hearts a thought-provoking read.