Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
Sealskin will be published May 1, 2017 by Orenda Press.
*** I was provided with a copy of this book by the publisher through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
Sealskin is a re-interpretation of the Selkie legend. The traditional story is about a fisherman who sees a seal transform into a woman while he is fishing at night. He steals her skin and brings her back to his community. He hides her sealskin in a chest. Over the years, she has his children and appears to be happy with her life. One day, when the fisherman is away, one of the children finds the sealskin and shows his mother. She returns to the ocean, never to be seen again.
On a moonlit night, Donald takes his row boat to check crab traps. He returns home with a woman who use to be a seal and would have returned to being a seal without his intervention. What follows is a story of a man attempting to reconcile the actions of his past, his perceptions of his community, and his love for Mairhi, a woman who yearns to return to her old life in the ocean.
I adored this book. This story so much more than a re-interpretation of the Selkie legend. It is a coming of age story for Donald, a young fisherman terrified of the sea. It is an exploration of a crofting community whose inhabitants confront death every single day. It is an exploration of a woman’s resilience in the face of circumstances she cannot control. I loved the depiction of a close-knit remote community. Above all, I adored how intricate and slow this story was. It meandered along and I enjoyed watching relationships develop and become more complex. There are so many different layers to this story, it’s hard to explain how much is included in this short book.
I really appreciated the depictions of the various forms of masculinity. The way men regarded themselves within the different structures of the community gave so much to the story. Often, when there is a male narrator, these differences are glossed over or not addressed. Since Donald regards himself as an outcast in his community, he is particularly attuned to the changing dynamics not just among the men, but the women. You can see how they are the backbone of the community and dictate the opinions of those around them. Although Mairhi’s interactions are always framed through Donald’s perspective, it is always clear where she stands with the other women.
On to my critique, I thought it was striking that Mairhi is silent for the entirety of the novel. The reader only ever sees her through Donald’s eyes and the narrative is coloured by his perceptions of her actions. Donald sexually assaults Mairhi and keeps her from returning to the ocean. He then brings her back to his community where they are forced into marriage because Mairhi is with child. I was uncomfortable with the development of Donald and Mairhi’s relationship because of the way it started. Although Donald ruminates on his terrible act, he never suffers for it. Instead, Mairhi bears a brunt of the consequences. Her name is not even her own, it is given to her by Donald and his mother.
There are themes of abuse towards women throughout the novel, painting a disturbing, but most likely accurate depiction of the way women were treated, and continue to be treated. Mairhi does not speak. She has no voice. In one way it could be viewed as a commentary on how powerless people feel following sexual assault. Yet, the sexual assault is not always present in the narrative in terms of the text’s rumination on it. There should have been a more constant thread of Donald’s guilt in the narrative. I do not think that the novel was attempting to necessarily do this. While I liked Mairhi’s characterization, I could not ever see her and Donald’s relationship in a positive way, even if the narrative attempts the reader to see it in that way.
Overall, this is an engaging story. Bristow’s writing is austere, yet beautiful, much like the landscape of the Hebrides. She writes clearly, forcefully and never wastes any words. I will be anxiously awaiting her next book.