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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