Allen and Unwin (2012)
Reviewed by Tehani Wessely
Rollrock Island is a remote fishing community of honest, hardworking folk; simple, down to earth, but with a strange history that is about to come about full circle. Misskaella finds within herself a power that has not been seen on the island in several generations, the power to call forth people from the skins of seals. Her ability will change the island and its inhabitants completely, bringing about a new era of sea-wives on Rollrock.
In Sea Hearts (also to be published internationally as The Brides of Rollrock Island), Lanagan has couched an examination of gender roles and sexuality in a setting and style pulled from legend. Nominally a Young Adult novel, Sea Hearts is at once completely appropriate for an older teen readership and a book to challenge and engage adult readers. Told from multiple points of view spanning generations, the changes in narrator are well handled and distinctive, from that of a young boy who is just coming to understand the strangeness of his island, to the sea witch Misskaella and the hurt that brings her to the actions she takes, and the other characters which provide a different insight into the microcosm that is Rollrock, including Trudle, whose story was more fully told in the story “Flower and Weeds”, podcast on Terra Incognita (an out-take from the book, published only in audio in 2010, read by Margo Lanagan). Together, the individual narratives detail the motivations and actions of the inhabitants of Rollrock Island which bring them full circle to their past.
Startlingly stark, Sea Hearts straddles the edge of the darkest stories of all – those that examine human nature. Lanagan’s gift for peering into the depths of humanity and dredging up the bleakest aspects of our nature, with all our flaws and unfathomable behaviours, is the strength behind this book. She takes a traditional style of story but creates something entirely new and compelling, dragging the reader into a tale that shines a light on what it means to be human, and the consequences of defying that which nature has set in place. Highly recommended!