I review Sealskin by Su Bristow.
What happens when magic collides with reality? Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous … and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives – not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?
Based on the legend of the selkies – seals who can transform into people – Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Exeter Novel Prize-winner Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance.
Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set. And it is, quite simply, unforgettable. For fans of Angela Carter, Eowyn Ivey, Alice Hoffmann and Geraldine Brooks.
Selkies are seals who come ashore and shed their skin to become human, and come from Scottish folklore. Sealskin weaves this legend into a wonderfully written and captivating tale. I found the concept of this very interesting, and this side of Sealskin is indeed engaging and beautiful.
But, while all of the above may be true, what is also true is that this book begins with the rape of a young woman. Overcome by her beauty, Donald forces himself upon her, then drags her back to his village. She is mute, and remains so, but Donald and his mother take charge. They name her Mhairi, and, since it soon transpires that she is with child, she and Donald are to be married. He promises not to touch her again without permission, and appears to keep that promise. Mhairi is bold and brave and strong, and soon finds her place in the village. She and Donald go on to have another child, and appear to be happy together. But I couldn’t help but see through the cracks of this tale.
Where others see a love story, I see Stockholm syndrome. Where others see forgiveness, I see acceptance. Where others see magic, I see the taming of women, the control, the toxic masculinity. I originally gave Sealskin 4 stars, but I’ve amended that to 3, because, despite how well it might be written, I cannot, in all conscience, get behind this book.
If you can look beyond these themes, Sealskin is an enjoyable book. I enjoy stories that have folklore and legends weaved into them, but I don’t understand why we must use rape as a plot device in such a way. For Mhairi is not on land by choice; she did not consent to the life thrust upon her, and that absence of consent, the absence of the young woman’s voice, strips away the magic of Sealskin.