Seduced by an island of sea-wives: Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Allen & Unwin
February 2012 (paperback, ebook)

I picked up this novel one morning from somewhere in the pile and was instantly drawn into its strange, contained world. The story is about the island of Rollrock, and the sea witch Misskaella who can draw forth human beings from seals. The novel is divided into several smaller stories from different points of view, which are all skilfully woven together. The longest stories include the story of Misskaella herself—how she came upon her powers as a child and what it means for the community—and the story of Daniel Mallet, son of a sea ‘mam’.

Lanagan has drawn on the mythology of the Selkies (from Icelandic, Faroese, Irish and Scottish folklore), but the novel has its own internal logic. Misskaella has a strong reason to draw forth the sea-wives, and to ensure that, slowly, the whole island will be rid of real ‘red’ women (or will it?). The language is delightful: phrases old-fashioned and imagined. Mums and babies are mams and babs, for example. And small details—like the blankets that the sea-wives make out of kelp, for comfort; the sea hearts that they eat (and the way they eat them); and the place where the seal ‘coats’ are kept—all help to make this a fleshy, well-realised world.

The story is addictive, too, due to the tone Lanagan sets, a mix of delight, dread and yearning. And there are moments of pure joy, like when Daniel Mallet gets a chance to ‘fly’. There is plenty of drama; the plot contains aspects of alienation, hunger and revenge, and the spiralling effects of these. By the end the reader feels quite haunted by the years they’ve spent on the island.

Sea Hearts is a young adult novel, but is definitely enjoyable for adults. It gave me a hankering for some more fantasy. Luckily, I picked up a copy of Lanagan’s Tender Morsels a few days after I finished Sea Hearts.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

13 thoughts on “Seduced by an island of sea-wives: Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

    • This was my first Margo Lanagan novel, though I’ve read some of her short stories. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this!

  1. Hi Angela, this review was very timely as I’ve just started Tender Morsels (my first Margo Lanagan) and blown away by it. Great writing, would recommend this one as well and you’ve certainly encouraged me to also read Sea Hearts as part of my year of reading Australian Women Writers (#aww2012)

  2. I have found Margo’s work to be less YA and more “Mature readers aged 15+”. I know she doesn’t mind been pigeon-holed into the YA category as its quite lucrative but I can’t help but think many adult readers will miss out on some really thought provoking work. The Times listed it as a children’s book, the guardian had it in their teen section.

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