Courtney Johnston's Reviews > X6: A Novellanthology

X6 by Keith Stevenson
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Jan 26, 11

bookshelves: borrowed, fiction, short-stories
Read in January, 2011

Small and exquisitely formed - I made the library buy this 6-novella anthology just so I could read the opening story 'Sea-hearts' by Margo Lanagan.

Among my favourite books as a child were Andrew Lang's collections of fairytales, the Colour Fairy Books. Fairy here didn't mean little winged things; these were anthologies of fairytales and folks stories from around the world, and they fed my earliest imagination.

I was particularly captured by the stories of metamorphosising lovers, of husbands and wives who were placed under enchantments, and could only reveal their true selves at night, or after certain trials were overcome. Many of these stories have a betrayal at their core: the unenchanted partner makes an agreement, deciding that any compromise is worthwhile in order to have their heart's desire. And then doubt is introduced - usually in the form of a sly old woman - and the promise is breached: the fur coat is burned, the lover's face is gazed upon by candlelight. And then the enchanted lover is torn away, to be retrieved only through sacrifice and penance. At their heart these are stories of love, and trust, and doubt, and those little thoughts that enter your head an eat you up from the inside out.

Margo Lanagan's novella is spun from the story of the selkie, the shapeshifting creatures of Scottish and Irish folklore, seals that can shed their skins and take human husbands. Her story is set on an island where all the men have taken selkie wives, and fathered boy children upon them. There are no human women or human girl children on the island bar the old witch Messkeletha, whom the pack of young boys fear.

The women may have been taken from their watery home, and may be magically bound to their husbands, but this does not mean they do not feel something for their husbands. And they adore their sons; as Daniel's (our narrator) father puts it: "We were always their imprisoners as well as the men they loved, and the fathers of their children".

To tell this slim story in any way risks spoiling it. Lanagan takes this fairytale matter and spins from it a tense, evocative, thought-provoking story, delivered in her trademark dialect and rich, strange descriptions. The sea is a much-described element, but in Lanagan's words it take new form: "the sea was grey, with white bits of temper all over it", or

As the sea to men, beyond the point that they can see the bottom, becomes only the plumblined depths full of loves and livelihoods, so to seals the heights become only wastes of dry blaring light from which weather and occasional dangers descend.

Lanagan also has a talent for grounding the fairytale to physical existence, of calling forth the body

'What did you say, lad?' he hissed into the utter silence. Someone gave a little peeping fart at the sound of such rage, and nobody even snickered, we were all so close to shitting ourselves, every lad of us.

I read this story in one rush last night in bed, and it's left my head full of thoughts about love and captivity - about how we willingly and unwillingly bind ourselves to one another, through love and blood and loyalty. About how tying yourself to someone has a cost, and so does making yourself free. It's a lot of thinking for a little story that's much bigger than it looks.

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message 1: by Emma (new)

Emma Makes This sounds so familiar - I wonder if these were the hardback books that I loved so much from the Invercargill Library when I was six or seven?

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