Sealskin by Su Bristow

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.

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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.

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3 thoughts on “Sealskin by Su Bristow

  1. Hi Vicki, and thank you.

    You are the first reviewer to pick up on the huge wrong at the heart of this legend, and you won’t be the last. It’s actually the reason why I started to write Sealskin. Such a lovely, moving tale – and all it says about the meeting is that the fisherman hid the selkie’s skin, so that she couldn’t go back to the sea, and ‘took her home to be his wife’. Yes, that’s rape and abduction. No, she had no choice.

    As a younger woman, I saw this as an allegory about the way girls are trapped into marriage by romance, and then required to be the servants and child-bearers of their husbands. And that is part of what it is. But there’s so much more here than that. And we need, more than ever in these interesting times, to find ways to move beyond the ghettos of woman as victim and man as abuser. We need stories that allow men to redeem their masculinity in a way that is not toxic.

    Young men’s sexuality is strong and sometimes overwhelming, and they get shamed for it. Most of them learn how to control it, and grow up to become responsible lovers, partners, fathers. Some of them make mistakes along the way. Can there never be a way back? That’s why I wrote Sealskin from Donald’s point of view, to explore how redemption might be possible, and what might lie beyond forgiveness. And still, at the end of it all, Mairhi goes back to the sea.

    I know not everyone will like this story, and that’s fine. I didn’t set out to please everybody! If it provokes debate, that’s wonderful. That’s what we need. Slowly, by tiny steps, it moves us on. So thank you again.

    Su Bristow

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Su,
      Thank you for taking the time to respond to my review! As always, I never intend to hurt authors with my reviews, but I must be honest. I find your writing to be incredible – if you weren’t so talented, I wouldn’t have been able to keep reading! Thanks to you and Orenda Books for providing me with a review copy, too.

      You’re absolutely right, of course. I struggle to agree with the idea that committing rape is a mistake, but I do support a criminal justice system that results in rehabilitation of offenders, so I suppose I do agree that there should be a way back, as you say. In short, I agree with your message, but perhaps not the fine points of it.

      I was so pleased that Mairhi went back to the sea. I felt like this point redeemed the story from Mairhi’s point of view – she made her choice. But I couldn’t help but feel that it was painted to show a woman who left her children, & a husband who she had apparently forgiven, instead of a woman simply choosing her freedom. But, everyone’s interpretation will be different.

      I appreciate you taking the time to read my review and to respond, so that I might have a better understanding of your writing, & anyone else reading this review too. Discussion & debate is always welcome here!

      Like

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