Sea HeartsSea Hearts is told from several different perspectives over the course of sea-witch Misskaella’s life. Misskaella is the youngest daughter of a couple living on remote Rollrock Island, who discovers early on in her life that she has a strange connection to the seals that gather at Crescent Corner. Ugly, fat and odd, she grows up overlooked and mistreated. Eventually Misskaella realises why she’s so drawn to the seals, she can draw out beautiful, enchanting wives from within them. She uses her power to exact revenge on the islanders for years of being ignored and ridiculed for her looks – people fear her, the men who purchase a wife are forever in her debt, and the local women are all rejected because no man can resist the seductive pull of a sea-wife.

Seal-women make the perfect wives. They are poised, temperate, guileless and yielding, which automatically brings to mind Stepford wives, but these seal-women aren’t devoid of feeling or robotic. They’re capable of deep love, defiance, and great melancholy but they’re not human, they’re seals, they’re not subject to the worries and passions of humankind.

Seal feelings are different from human ones, seal affections, seal ties with other seals. The best I can do is overlay a skin of man-words on the grunt and urge and song and flight and slump of seal-being.

It’s a far more ethereal existence than any we can imagine.

The story is unhurried and lilting, like seal life. Sea Hearts unfolds without great drama but it’s quietly, strangely compelling. There’s both a stern, windswept beauty to Margo Lanagan’s prose and a playfulness, the mams

loved when the littlest boys, learning to speak, would try these noises; nothing amused them better than a tiny trying to loose a bit of seal-song, and a mam singing back to him.

Poetic is an adjective I’m always wary of, a possible byword for detached, pointless and hard to understand but Sea Hearts isn’t overburdened by an obsession with its own lyricism. To add balance it’s got fine little touches of colloquialisms and humour. About the inhabitants of Rollrock Island a girl asks, ‘Is it all potty boys and men?’ A boy defending his sea-mam from insult retorts, ‘But they’re our mams, so don’t you say anything that might get you popped on the snout.’

I felt for Misskaella and her lonely, bitter existence and for the innocent, simple sea-wives, torn between their desire for the sea and their love for the sons they have on land. Actually, almost everyone had my sympathy – the dads for being incapable of denying their magical attraction to the seal-women, the fiery red-headed women of Rollrock who are rejected in favour of their lithe seal counterparts, the sons of seal-mams and Rollrock men, who watch on helplessly as their mams are tormented by their longing to be back among the waves.

No part of the story is told from the perspective of a seal-wife. Their feelings are filtered through Misskaella, their husbands, their sons, Rollrock women. They are ultimately unknowable, much desired and integral to Rollrock, but just out of reach. In order to maintain that sense of otherness it’s probably best that Lanagan doesn’t write directly from their point of view, but you can still see their animal tenderness and sorrow through their sons’ eyes.

Lanagan is deserving of a much wider audience so I’m very happy Sea Hearts has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize. It’s generally sold as young adult fiction but there’s nothing particularly YA about Sea Hearts – no teenaged characters, a sophisticated story, and a complexity and emotional range that would just as easily speak to adults. And while the fantastical premise appealed to me, I really don’t think you have to love fantasy to appreciate Sea Hearts.

Sea Hearts is beguiling and haunting, it’s difficult to explain my attraction to it. It won’t be for everyone. Now, I’m never going to suggest you read a book simply because it’s beautifully written. That’s not enough. Lanagan offers more. Don’t think about it, just let yourself be seduced and drawn in by the bewitching world she has created.

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