Review 1544: Sealskin

Ever since I heard Joan Baez sing “Silkie,” I have been fascinated by stories of selkies. They don’t seem to feature very often, but a few years ago, I reviewed an intriguing one in The Sea House.

In Sealskin, Su Bristow explores the legend, in particular one about a man who finds a selkie and hides her sealskin so he can keep her. This novel is set in as realistic a way as you can get in a story about a selkie (except in The Sea House).

Donald is a misfit in his Scottish fishing village because of a skin disease. Although his uncle Hugh would like him to crew with him, he avoids going out on the fishing boat because of taunts from the crew. He spends most of his time avoiding the other villagers.

One night he goes crabbing and sees seals on a rocky ledge. They take off their skins and become young maidens and dance. Thinking of the value of the sealskin, Donald steals one, and when the maidens are frightened into donning their skins and swimming away, one cannot leave.

Donald captures the selkie and in a fit of madness, rapes her. When he takes her home to his mother, Bridie, she tells him he can’t send the girl back because she knows she is with child. Bridie tells him he must marry the girl, whom they name Mairhi, and pretend he met her months before in another village.

Mairhi cannot speak but shows she is very unhappy. Donald doesn’t want to marry her, despite his mother’s warnings, so he goes back to find her skin, but it is gone.

Although I have an objection to love stories that start with a rape—a technique that used to be used often in romance novels—Bristow handles this story of love and personal growth tremendously well. It’s a touching novel about consequences.

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Day 682: The Sea House

Cover for The Sea HouseAn atmospheric novel set on the Scottish isle of Harris, The Sea House offers a fascinating story split between two times, the 1990’s and the early 19th century.

In 1992, Ruth and Michael have purchased a ramshackle Georgian house on the island, intending to fix it up and open a bed and breakfast. The house used to be the manse long before a new modern house was built. In tearing up the floorboards in the study, Michael finds the small corpse of a baby, although its legs are unfinished, looking more like a fish tail.

The body is at least 100 years old and its death is found to be of natural causes, but Ruth becomes interested in finding out more about the long-ago occupants of the house, hoping to identify the baby. She begins looking into the house’s history.

Ruth also knows very little about her own history. When she was 10, her mother’s death by drowning was found to be suicide, and she grew up in a series of foster homes. She knows nothing about her father, and all her mother told her was that they came from the islands and were descended from selkies. Her last name was Macleod, which she finds is a very common name there, but when she consults a genealogist, the woman can find no trace of a woman of her mother’s name and age born on the islands, leading them to guess that she was using a false name.

In 1860, Alexander Ferguson is the new curate at the manse. He is serious and eager to serve god and his parishioners. He is also interested in the new discoveries about evolution and studies fossils looking for new species. His family legend also holds that he is descended from selkies, and he is fascinated when he hears that a mermaid was discovered on the beach after a storm. He would like to examine her, but she has already been buried and the authorities won’t dig her up. He becomes interested in the idea that selkies might actually exist and could be a cross-species between man and fish.

Alexander has also taken in a new maid, a girl found running wild. Moira’s family was moved off their island along with all the other families so that Lord Marston could put sheep on it. The families were allocated the worst piece of land and all of them except Moira got sick and died. Moira was away from the house when Lord Marston’s men came and burned it down, and she was living wild until the reverend took her in. She loves the reverend but has vowed to kill Lord Marston.

This novel is well written and interesting. I was engrossed in both the modern and historical stories. The novel is particularly interesting for those who like Celtic legends and folk tales.

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