Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Why are the books we love most the hardest to review?

During the course of this year’s reading, I’ve come across a number of outstanding books by Australian women (or women who, at some point, have lived and written in Australia): Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, Charlotte Wood’s Animal People, Kirsty Eagar’s Raw Blue, Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon and M J Hyland’s Carry Me Down. Each of these books moved me profoundly, mostly emotionally, but also to some degree intellectually.

Of the above books, so far I’ve only managed to review Dog Boy, and that only because I was challenged to by another book blogger.

For the others, I made excuses. It was too soon; I needed to process my reaction more. Or how could I do the book justice? Or – hasn’t it been reviewed enough already? Or it was too long since I’d read it: I’d have to read it again. Anything but face the painful task of putting into words what is was about a book that ripped my heart out.

My recent (re)discovery that I’d signed up for the Aussie Author challenge has prompted me to give some of these books another go – starting with Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts, or Brides of Rollrock Island, as it’s known in the UK.

You know when you’ve found a great book when you not only remember it months later, but also want to fork out hard-earned cash to buy your own copy, instead of re-borrowing from the library. Sea Hearts is such a book for me. It’s the kind I can imagine dipping into at random simply to savour the words, as I do with poetry – because Lanagan’s prose is among the most memorable and evocative that I’ve ever read.

Sea Hearts is a devastating book. Mixing history and myth, it weaves a story of an island and the fisher folk who inhabit it. The fishermen fall in love with Selkies, beautiful, seemingly docile women who are “sung” by magic from seals. The tragedy for the fishermen is the same as for the Selkies and the fisherwomen whom they replace: the Selkies may be every man’s desire, but at the cost of their true, “sea” nature. Eventually, they must return to the sea or die.

The genesis of the story, Lanagan says in a video for publisher Allen and Unwin, was the idea of knitting a blanket out of seaweed. Why would someone do this? What would it represent?

In answer, Lanagan created Misskaela, the half-Selkie, half-human “witch” who sings the Selkies – as women – into being. The structure of the novel is episodic, a series of short stories or fragments rather than a novel,  and portrays various points of view over several generations with Misskaela’s story at its core. Whereas in less skilled hands such a structure might detract from the reader’s ability to follow the story and care about the characters, Lanagan’s execution is near flawless. Misskaela is the unhappy key figure against which all the others’ stories are referenced, and her story gives the book its heart-breaking climax.

Sea Heart has been extensively reviewed for the AWW challenge, including by Lizabelle, Literary Minded, Krissy Kneen, Astrid, Sue Luus, Dark Matter Fanzine, Coleen Kwan, Mark Webb, Jason Nahrung and at Adventures of a Bookonaut (NB: this list has been revised: please let me know if there are more I missed).

I know why: it’s one of the stand-out AWW reads for 2012.


This review counts as Book 2 in my Aussie Author Challenge 2012 and my ongoing commitment to read books by Australian women for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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  1. I think I’d like to read this one!


  2. Great review. it reminds me of another book but damn it I can’t remember what it’s called. Ill get back to you on that one.

    A good review always makes you want to go out and read it. Will have to go get myself a copy.


    • Thanks, Kathryn – that’s a compliment to me, but even more so to Margo’s writing Sea Hearts deserves a wide audience.

      I’d be interested to know which book it reminds you of. I’d like to read more!


  3. I totally agree that reviewing books that I love is hard. One reason I find it difficult is that I want my reviews to be well-thought through critiques. A glowing review can be easily dismissed as a superficial fan rave,

    You remark,”Lanagan’s prose is among the most hauntingly beautiful that I’ve ever read”. That is certainly something to treasure. I’ve been reading some good books recently but this reminded me that it is language that sings which lifts a good book into greatness.


    • Hi Yvonne, Thanks for your comment.

      I read an article yesterday that mentioned the importance of “story” in making a book readable and popular. It said that the quality language was the last thing a novelist should consider (as in, the final draft). I’ve tended to agree, given that some books I’ve read and reviewed lately have lacked a compelling story. However, reading Lanagan’s work makes me doubt that, in this instance: Sea Hearts couldn’t be the same without the magical prose. It’s almost like one of the characters.


  4. Aha … I would disagree with that theory. Story is not very important to me, at least, a compelling plot isn’t, but perhaps that’s a bit different to “story”. The thing that will put me off books upfront is the prose. For example … I loved, loved, loved Neville Shute when I was a teen. Such great stories. But, I reread him recently and was hugely disappointed. The language is just ordinary. His books make great movies, because the stories are powerful, but I don’t think I’ll ever read him again. I will, though, reread and reread my other teen favourite, Jane Austen. Wonderful, clever, witty writing.


    • Hi Sue, Thanks for commenting.

      It’s an interesting question, whether we should distinguish between plot and story. The essayist maintains that plot is the events of the novel; story is how those events, and particularly the choices/dilemmas thrown up by them, affect the protagonist. It’s that involvement with the main character, the vicarious thrill of safely exploring situations which, in ‘real life’, we might naturally shy away from, which makes for a compelling story.

      In this schema, the plot events might be subtle – a phone call; seeing a bird’s nest full of eggs on a branch about to fall; or melodramatic – a political overthrow; or anything in between, according to the author’s inclination or the dictates of the genre.

      I know what you mean about being disappointed by once-loved books. It’s always with relief that I discover something I once cherished and realise it’s actually good writing, not just a page-turning story.


  5. Ah, you’ve moved your own blog to WordPress too? Whoopee Doo … So much easier (for me, anyhow) to comment on.


  6. I too agree that writing reviews for books i love is so much harder than the ones i don’t. I think when i read books that have flaws, as i’m reading i’m thinking to myself ‘oh i don’t like that bit’ and so it’s easier to reference that in a review. But when you read a book you love, you don’t notice all those little details because you’re completely absorbed and then you get to the end and wonder what exactly you loved about it! (I’m sorry if that doesn’t make any sense!).

    I haven’t read Sea Hearts, but it does sound like an intriguing read, thanks for sharing your thoughts Elizabeth.


    • Hi Jayne, that’s it! You become so absorbed in the world, you don’t notice. (You make perfect sense to me.)

      I realise the platform also affects how I judge a book. I began one AWW book on ereader and just couldn’t get into it. Now, months later, I have a print copy from the library, and suddenly the story is real to me and I’m loving it. It’s such a shame, as it would be far easier to carry around a library on my iPad.


  7. I wrote a lengthy reply to your Plot/Story reply using WordPress Notifications on my iPad and it went poof. I seem to have that trouble with the notifications on iPad but not on my laptop (and not if I use the standard comment function on iPad).

    Can’t remember exactly what I wrote now but it was along the lines that when I wrote my comment, as you realised, I started to think about the difference between plot and story … and it’s plot I don’t care much about. Stories make the world go round don’t they … I’m one of those readers and movie goers who don’t mind slow stories. In fact I enjoy them — I enjoy wallowing in the details of people’s lives and characters as presented in books and films. But, I can only enjoy that if, in the case of books, the writing is good and draws me in with the pictures it draws and the observations made.


    • Oh, how annoying, Sue. The same thing happens to me with WordPress on iPad: I’ve stopped using it now I’ve realised. (That’s also why I don’t comment unless I get onto the PC – just in case a post disappears on me.)

      Yes, I’m with you on plot and story. I too love slow stories (or is that slow, non-existent plots?). One of my favourite David Lynch movies is The Straight Story, which has virtually no plot, but – for me – so much heart-felt emotion and depiction of character and setting…

      In terms of writing by Australian women, PM Newton’s The Old School, though it had a crime plot, could have sustained me on story alone; also Gail Jones’ Dreams of Speaking. Also, there are lots of so-called riveting plots, especially in crime, that leave me cold: the novels have has to portray real characters, relationships and settings to be really satisfying.


  8. I reviewed it as well, probably my favourite book of the challenge


  1. Aussie Author Challenge 2012 « Devoted Eclectic
  2. A year of reading books by Australian women « Devoted Eclectic
  3. Inaugural Stella Prize Longlist Announced « Australian Women Writers Challenge
  4. Celebrating Australian Women’s Writing | Transcending

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