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Sea Hearts
By Margo Lanagan
Allen and Unwin, 343pp, $19.99
Released February 2012

What does a child know?

Folk whisper about the look and the shape of her, and send gifts that her difference may remain hidden, but Misskaella’s dark hair speaks of a legacy that she will exploit to exact her revenge.

Dominic’s father is proud of his wife, a flame-haired beauty from the mainland, and wishes his son the same future happiness. After his parents’ deaths, Dominic is ensnared by Misskaella’s magic as she brings him forth a seal-wife.

Remote Rollrock Island is home to a seal colony. It’s Nanny Prout who declared that Misskaella “harks back: it is in her mouth and nose and just in the general set of her”. Misskaella was born of a seal-father with the magic to summon the human from the selkie. This is her revenge and her fortune.

Within two generations, Rollrock Island women migrate to the mainland leaving the men to their seal-wives and sons – for the girls born of selkie-mams return to the sea.

It’s a shock to Daniel when the lads gain access to the locked room at the back of the pub – row after row of seal-skins and the smell of their mams rising to his nostrils. Two seal-wives are dead of grief, for they could not return to the sea. If Daniel can free the mams and the dads of this bondage, may he choose with whom he lives?

Margo Lanagan explores both sides of the selkie myths in Sea Hearts.

Layers of genetic and communal identity are revealed through the coming of age and sexual awakening of Misskaella and boys of her own age. By introducing seal-brides to Rollrock she seeks to create not a community in her own image, but the incurable pain of desire.

The men are so besotted with their wives that they collaborate to hide their skins. It troubled me that the seal-brides so passively accepted their fate.

Daniel’s recognition that the mams are happiest when they sing and speak seal is false. “My darling,” [his mam] said softly, “if you want your wife to be happy, and to speak the seal-tongue truly, you will not take her as your wife.”

With those words the selkies gain a voice in Rollrock and act to reclaim their true identities, families and homes in the sea.

Lanagan’s dark tale is told with earth-bound passion and concludes with a warm embrace for families forever bound and separated by land and sea.