“Do you think, if something starts wrong, it can come right in the end?” Late in Sealskin, the protagonist Donald asks this question, and each reader’s answer to it will likely shape how they feel about the novel as a whole.
So, selkie legends (and similar animal-bride myths; sometimes it’s a swan or a fox instead) are kind of My Thing, and as soon as I heard of Su Bristow’s new release, I wanted to read it. I found it well-written and atmospheric, but I had problems with it as well. At this point I need to drop a spoiler warning; it’s impossible to discuss my qualms without giving some things away. This is an event that happens on page 6 and is central to the plot. I’ll let you decide whether or not to read it. If you want to, highlight the following white text:
Sealskin begins (this happens on page 6) with the rape of the selkie, later named Mairhi, by the protagonist, Donald. This shocked me, and then I had to do some soul-searching to make sure I wasn’t just being hypocritical. Certainly I’ve read other books where rape figured in the plot. And the selkie legend itself is rife with consent issues: the seal-maiden generally has her sealskin stolen against her will, then is stuck marrying the thief and having several children with him before she finds her skin and makes her escape, so the sexual assault is always implicit in it. What I came up with was that when I read the original legends, I identified with her; I sympathized with her feelings of alienation, of exile from where she was supposed to be and even who she was supposed to be, and I tried not to think about the sexual aspect much at all. Bristow is asking me to identify with Donald, since he’s the only point-of-view character, and I found that much more difficult.
Regarding Donald, we know from the beginning that he’s a loner; he lives with his mother Bridie, is bullied by the other young men in town, and has not yet taken up the adult responsibilities that are expected of him. I think it may also be implied that he’s not neurotypical, though I wouldn’t swear to it. But when he brings Mairhi home from the shore that night, everything begins to change. Bridie’s urging gets the ball rolling, but soon he’s figuring out how to be a family man and take care of a household.
The advent of Mairhi ripples through the whole village too; as the townspeople get to know her, some think she has a healing touch, others think she’s a witch, but everybody is changed, and over the next few years, all of the relationships in town are shaken up.
But as the years go by, Donald is still unsettled about how his marriage began, and since Mairhi doesn’t speak, he’s not sure whether she can forgive him. (One change from the original legend is that, in Sealskin, it’s not Donald’s fault the sealskin is lost, though there’s certainly plenty that he can be blamed for.)
Overall I found much of the middle and end of the novel moving, as Donald and the townspeople are all made better by Mairhi’s presence, but never could quite get over how it all began. It feels like I’m being asked to think that the initial rape was a good thing, or at least somehow justified, because of all the ways other people’s lives were indirectly affected by it, and I just can’t get there.
However, the writing is well done, and Bristow paints a vivid setting and knows how to tug on the heartstrings. I would definitely read another novel by her.