That was a really long-winded and self-indulgent way of saying that this is not going to be an analytical or theoretical review. I am not going to talk about the devices that Lanagan uses or the pacing, style or plotting glitches, if any. This review is going to be about how Sea Hearts made me feel, and why.
The story that Lanagan tells in this book is a riff on the folktales and mythology about selkies: the seal women, who live as seals in the sea but are capable of shedding their sealskins to assume human form. Setting her tale on a remote fishing island, Rollrock, Lanagan has adopted many of the key elements of traditional selkie mythology - the beauty of the selkie women, their desire to return to their seal form and the sea, the human men being besotted with them and hiding their sealskins to prevent their return. What she's changed, however, adds a power and aching to the story that carries out out of "well-told folk story" into something truly great. In Lanagan's conception, the selkies do not simply and voluntarily come forth; they are called out of their seal skins by the skill, or magic, of Misskaella, a local woman who is rejected by her own community for being strange, unlovely, and weird, in the old sense of that word.
Oh, Misskaella. Was ever a character more completely drawn? From when we meet her, as a dumpy, persecuted child, to her death near the end of the book, Lanagan never stops adding layers and twists to this woman. To me, she is the main character of the book, although others might disagree (and, truth be told, it is an ensemble cast - a book about a community and how it works, not about individuals as grand isolated forces). The power that infuses Misskaella, the ability to see the potential human form inside the seal's body and to draw it out with song and charm, is nothing she asked for, but she makes it do her dismal work, calling forth sea maiden after sea maiden to the ultimate fragmentation of the whole island. Rejected and reviled, she bites down on her sorrow and rage and, with ice cold prescience, sets in motion the events that will drive all the "red women" from Rollrock, and inflict permanent pain on all the men. She does this knowingly and greedily, and profits enormously by it.
Yet she's not hateable, not to me. Here is the woman who sings forth a seal man for herself, in her loneliness, and discovers that she is beautiful, worthy, despite what she has been taught:
And here was a wonder, that a man so well-conformed himself should be so eager to embrace what I had always been told was a poorly-made body, laughable, even disgusting. But I delighted him; he travelled my curves, weighed me in his hands, pressed me and gasped with me as I yielded. Open-faced he looked into me, his eyes empty of the scorn I was used to seeing, in women's faces as well as men's. Instead he was only another creature discovering skin ... Exultant, I watched as my life tore free like a kit from its string and flung itself up into the windstorm that was the future.
Here is the woman who births selkie-sons in secret, and has to return them to the sea so they might survive as seals:
He broke my heart with his celebrating - how little he needed me, how perfectly happy he was now, as he had not been before, in my house, at my breast! I was glad of his gladness, and that he would be cared for, but how would I live without him, the little prince who had ruled my days and nights?
Here, too, is the vengeful woman, who brings the first selkie to shore knowing the effect she will inevitably have on every man who sees her, and how this will, in time, create a society of seal-wives and human husbands. All these sea-born mams with their ineffable beauty and pliancy and sadness; all the daughters that must be returned to the sea, like Misskaella's sons; all the longing that will poison the well of happiness on this island, build life on a false rock of seeming and magic rather than red-faced reality.
The resolution of this multipartite tragedy feels both inevitable and excrutiating. I'll avoid spoiling too much, but suffice to say, those born of the sea return to it. Trying to explain to his father, the selkie Neme's son, Daniel, says:
'You want me to say she missed you. But do you want me to lie? I did not see it. But did that mean she didn't grieve after you? ... But as for how was she? She was her own self in the sea, that's all.' I tried to find a way to explain it. 'She was not in pain, you know, from her feet, and she could move, so well and so easily, not like under the blankets here, all weighed down -'
'She was happy, then,' he said.
I shook my head. 'Not even that. But she was freed of ... she didn't have the sadness that she carried around up here. So I suppose, yes, she was happy...'
The unwisdom and ultimate misery of trying to deny nature, and the painfulness of dividing a heart between two worlds, underscores all the plaintive emotion in this book. Ultimately, Misskaella's charms serve as a kind of sickly glamour that can only be cured by the love of a son for his mother, a love and sacrifice that he exercises in the same way that the witch herself gives her beloved sons back to the sea. It is such a powerful, heart-tearing cycle, and Lanagan lets it settle in without ever over-egging the pudding, allowing the many strands of this tangled web to reveal themselves as the story progresses.
As to how this book made me feel: Terribly sad. Enormous unnameable longing. Beautiful and powerful. Compassionate, for all the flawed people and all their little sins that led them to this end.
It is a wonderful, life-infusing book. I really don't care if you don't normally like fantasy or folklore-type fiction; please believe me, this is worth departing from type for. Read it and you will know why.