Reynje's Reviews > Sea Hearts

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan
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Aug 03, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: australian, cover-loving, dual-or-multiple-pov, read-2012, under-the-sea, books-that-linger, writing-envy, magical-realism, folk-and-fairytales
Read in July, 2012

4.5 stars
”Was she beautiful, the sea-maid? Fair strange, Doris had said, and I thought that was a fine assessment.
Fair strange. I think that’s a fine assessment of Sea Hearts too: beautiful in, or for, its unusualness.

It’s proving extremely difficult to review Sea Hearts (titled The Brides of Rollrock Island in the US) in isolation, and not hold it up against Lanagan’s previous novel, Tender Morsels. Though I read the latter earlier this year, I still haven’t been able to wrangle my thoughts into review form, beyond being able to say that it’s one of the most powerful, disturbing and peculiar books I’ve ever read. (And I do mean that in a good way). So I was apprehensive, even nervous, going into Sea Hearts.

Now having read them both, I can definitely say that there are some similarities between the novels, as they both have Lanagan’s singularly complex and artistic use of language, atmosphere, emotion, and thematic depth. However, while Tender Morsels is almost relentlessly unsettling, I believe Sea Hearts, without diluting the power of Lanagan’s writing, is the more accessible book.

And the writing is exquisite. Besides the rich, lyrical prose that sets Lanagan apart as a storyteller, it’s also incredibly atmospheric. Rollrock Island and its small, insular community of Potshead are exceptionally well-realised. Lanagan has created a setting that feels simultaneously familiar and foreign, a glimpse of our own past slightly tilted on its axis into something strange and not quite of our world. Through dialogue and characterisation, the world of Rollrock slips its moorings in reality and occupies a realm of existence just beyond our own, all the more so as the story of the selkies and sea-witches are woven into its history.

Sea Hearts is structured around seven narrators, each taking up a layer of the story until it comes full circle. At first, the framework seems strange and the shifts in perspective and time feel abrupt, incomplete. Then a synergy in the voices begins to emerge, drawing towards a central, cohesive thread, and it becomes clear just how complex and dark a story Lanagan is weaving.

On the surface, Sea Hearts is about a sea-witch with the ability to draw forth a woman from a seal, who begins trading in brides for the men of Rollrock Island. But that synopsis barely scratches the surface of what this novel is about. This is a deeply insightful story about the consequences of revenge exacted upon a community, and of the sorrow bought with unchecked desire. The far reaching effects of rejection, fear and loss are adroitly explored through the characters, whom Lanagan imbues with sympathy despite their many actions to the contrary. This is most evident in Misskaella, a character flawed and reprehensible, yet deeply human in her story of growth from a spurned child and downtrodden young woman, to a calculating and feared crone. Some of Lanagan’s most beautiful writing is tied up in Misskaella’s character arc, and the consequences that her personal journey wreaks upon the island. Similarly, there’s a scene that details a conversation between Daniel Mallett and his mother, too long to quote here, so poignant and moving for the way it gets straight to the heart of the novel - to the private burdens of sorrow and guilt that the island must atone for cumulatively.

Of course, much like Tender Morsels, the style and subject of Sea Hearts won’t be for everyone, and I’d even venture to say that it’s an acquired taste. The novel can feel dense at times, enigmatic to the point of frustration. Lanagan compels her readers to unusual, dark places and does not always deliver explanations, rather requiring readers to draw their own. She does not offer detailed rationalisations for her worldbuilding choices, and there are times when I felt out of my depth in the setting. However, the end result is extraordinary and rewarding.

Tender Morsels in a feminist context has been the subject of much discussion, both far more in depth and more articulately than I could even begin to attempt, but I think it’s worth touching on the subject as it pertains to Sea Hearts.

I do think that Lanagan’s novels have many intelligent things to say about the position of women in society. Sea Hearts less stridently than Tender Morsels, but still in an insightful and thought-provoking manner. Throughout Sea Hearts, traditional gender roles are very much in evidence, and I think that Lanagan subtly challenges these as the plot unfolds. The female characters typically occupy narrowly defined places in their society, yet both the “red wives” and the sea wives have agency in contesting these. Most obvious is the “red wives” in their decision to leave the island in protest against the summoning of the sea wives. And while it’s arguable that the sea wives themselves are conjured as “possessions” of the men, living under their dominance and as manifestations of the men’s sexual desire and objectification, they too have purpose and desire outside being “wives”. Their ties to their home, and the action this causes them to take, clearly demonstrate that their will extends beyond the narrow confines of Potshead’s social norms and expectations, and that attempting a forced assimilation only damages the tightly knit community. From Miskaella, Bet Winch’s mother, the sea wives, Lory Severner to Trudle Callisher, the central female characters of Sea Hearts display different aspects of strength and independence, asserting themselves beyond the rigid and limited views of them held by the other characters, particularly the men.

Sea Hearts is an unusual novel, beautiful in its sadness and haunting closure. It works well as a crossover and I’d recommend it to anyone drawn to artful storytelling and literary fiction.

As for the covers and titles, I like them all, though I admit a bias for the Australian versions of both. I like the title Sea Hearts (which is also the title of the original novella from which the novel grew), for its duality – it works on both a literal and symbolic level and is therefore open to a variety of interpretations. Regarding the covers, anyone who’s had a glance at my tumblr knows how I feel about moody pictures involving water (spoiler: I like them), however I think the Australian cover is more evocative of the sea wives as they’re described.

And I think it’s just gorgeous in general.


Starting this tonight.. *flails and runs to catch up with Leanne*


Bumping this up the TBR to read with Leanne next week..
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Reading Progress

07/26 page 51
15.0% "There WILL be page-flagging!"
07/26 page 67
20.0% ""..I would climb by field and fence to Whistle Top, and fill my teeth and hair with wind, my eyes with sea around three sides of me, rinsing the house's cramped darkness and sickroom smells out of my head. I would feel rage and shame of being a Prout - and of being this Prout particularly, the unmarried one, the odd one, the one who harked back." 1 comment
07/28 page 188
55.0% "Margo Lanagan's writing continues to be beautiful and strange.."
07/29 page 205
60.0% "Daniel Mallett"
07/30 page 249
73.0% ""It's true. They're a great comfort!" And looking in my urgent face she laughed some more. [...] And I was so occupied with obtaining these assurances, and pressing my need for them upon her, that it did not occur to me to wonder, let alone to ask her, why at all, in the first place, she might require comforting." 1 comment
02/26 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-39 of 39) (39 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

*slows to a halting stop*

So I can't decide which cover I like more (I think the hardcover edition has a different cover as well). Think I prefer the Aussie title actually, but I like the US cover better... What about you, Rey?

message 2: by Eleanor (new)

Eleanor I just met you two... and this is crazy... but can I watch the readalong... let me maybe?

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Of course you can... just try to chaaaaase us... because here's the thing... We. Are... *attempts to think of something smart to say* I d-don't know!

*runs and hides in corner*

message 4: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 25, 2012 06:12PM) (new)

*clears throat* Eleanor, I feel that you, I, Reynje and many other lovely people on this site will be wonderful friends. It's a gut feeling, you know? :)

Reynje Here's my review thread - follow me maybe? ;)

I like both covers :) And you're right, there is a third out there, which I also like. It's a tough call, but maybe once I've finished I'll decide which one fits best..

message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

I approve. :)

From what I read, the atmosphere corresponded well with the Aussie cover. But alas, we shall see...

message 7: by Eleanor (new)

Eleanor You can't hide from me Leanne! I can still see the brim of your big fabulous hat sticking out from behind that cabinet!

I think the three of us used to be friends in a past life. I'm a bit psychic like that.

The Aussie cover is STUNNING in real life. Twice at the bookstore I have stroked it. I had no idea this book has a different title overseas, does anyone know why?

message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

*chuckles* This hat would be difficult to hide, wouldn't it? I'd have to stash it somewhere private or something. :)

Yes, yes. I'm sure we were all reincarnated from past lives. Your charisma and humour is unforgettable, I must say.

And it was an odd choice for the publishers to do so. Similarily, the publishers marketed Tender Morsels as a YA novel, even though the content suggests otherwise...

Jenna I so want to read this!

Reynje Belle wrote: "I so want to read this!"

Only 25 pages in, but it's amazing so far..

Reynje Leanne? Trin? I need to talk about this ending..

message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

Wait! 30 pages to go! *scrambles to finish reading*

I agree with you, Reynje. I'm pretty sure we have all have things to say about this book...

Reynje I'm completely daunted by the idea of writing a review for this ;)

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

Haha, same here. :) Tender Morsels was challenging enough to review, but this one? I need a few days just to gather my thoughts.

Reynje Agreed - the more I think about it, the more depth I realise it has.. I might take a while for me to formulate something coherent :)

message 16: by Steph (new)

Steph I'm incredibly excited to read this. I never picked up Tender Morsels because you had mentioned something about beastiality in your review, which squicks me out. This sounds right up my alley though. Think I'll pre-order it now! :)

Reynje Stephanie (The Night Bookmobile) wrote: "I'm incredibly excited to read this. I never picked up Tender Morsels because you had mentioned something about beastiality in your review, which squicks me out. This sounds right up my alley thoug..."

Tender Morsels is definitely a complicated book - I still don't really know how I feel about it. I think this one is more accessible, even though it's still very Lanagan-esque, if that makes sense :) Her writing is so unique..

message 18: by Steph (new)

Steph I think that's what interests me most. One of my favorite writers, Lorrie Moore, has a very meandering and somewhat strange writing style that I absolutely love. Margaret Atwood somewhat too - although her writing is a tad more straight forward.

I thought this was coming out this month but Amazon tells me September. Such a wait!

Reynje I haven't read any Lorrie Moore, but I do love Margaret Atwood's writing. Lanagan has a strange rhythm, but once you settle into it, it's really gorgeous.

I'm intrigued to see what people will think of this. I've read a few reviews (it's been out in Australia for a little while) but mostly from people familiar with her work. Anyone expecting a PNR is going to be disappointed :)

Leanne and I read this at the same time, so I'm looking forward to her review.

message 20: by Steph (new)

Steph Definitely don't expect a PNR! I'm in it for the unique writing I've heard so much about.

Lorrie's stories aren't disturbing, well I guess they are in a way, but they're mostly stories about the every day lives of unhappy people. There's just something offbeat about her writing that I really enjoy. I hesitate recommending her to others though because there's no real resolution in her short stories and since her writing is so unique it's hard to know who else it will appeal to. If you're interested in checking her out I recommend Self-Help.

Jenna Beautiful review, Rey. I want to read this more than ever now! I love the Aussie cover best too.

Reynje @Stephanie - I know what you mean. I've gone on a bit of a gush here, because I really do think this book is pretty brilliant, but I know it's not going to appeal to everyone. But as I was reading, I just kept flagging pages and re-reading parts because I loved the writing so much.

I'll definitely check out Lorrie Moore too, I don't mind non-resolution :)

@Belle - Thank you! I'd love to hear what you think about this.. Also, I just really want to talk to someone about the ending :) The Aussie cover is pretty stunning. As creepy as it sounds, I just want to keep stroking it..

Jenna I have it on my TBR shelf so I'll make it a priority to get to it soon! :)

message 24: by HєllyBєlly (new) - added it

HєllyBєlly Thank you for a great review. I downloaded and read a sample the other day and it pulled me in immediately and has lingered.
I am saving this book for when I can give it my whole hearted attention.

Reynje HellyBelly wrote: "Thank you for a great review. I downloaded and read a sample the other day and it pulled me in immediately and has lingered.
I am saving this book for when I can give it my whole hearted attention."

Thank you - I really hope you enjoy it! It's such a wonderful reading experience.

message 26: by Laima (new) - added it

Laima Fantastic review... moving up in my TBR pile!

Reynje Laima wrote: "Fantastic review... moving up in my TBR pile!"

Thanks :)

message 28: by Heidi (new) - added it

Heidi Lovely review Reynje! I'm so excited for this one, but also approaching it with a bit of trepidation. I haven't read any Lanagan yet, but I know she has a unique style that many readers will never click with. I keep wondering if I'll be one of those who does (I think I will, I like things that are a bit strange, but you never know). I'm happy to be starting with this one since you say it is more accessible than Tender Morsels. I love atmospheric settings, and multiple threads that come together in stories, so we shall see!

message 29: by Eleanor (new)

Eleanor Beautiful review, beautiful lady, beautiful manicure! I'm definitely going to read this now and finally be introduced to Margo Lanagan.

Reynje Heidi wrote: "Lovely review Reynje! I'm so excited for this one, but also approaching it with a bit of trepidation. I haven't read any Lanagan yet, but I know she has a unique style that many readers will never..."

Thanks so much Heidi - I'd love to hear what you think, when you read it. Tender Morsels is also beautifully written, but I know some have found the content quite confronting. One of these day I'll get around to reviewing it :)

Eleanor wrote: "Beautiful review, beautiful lady, beautiful manicure! I'm definitely going to read this now and finally be introduced to Margo Lanagan."

Thank you Elle! I'm really intrigued to see what you think of this.. ;)

message 31: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh my, Reynje, I love your review so much. You expressed the beauty of this book so eloquently and articulately. :) And I agree with you about the Australian cover- it pertains to the content inside the book more accurately, as does the title.

The ending was... *shivers* Haunting... And I think I actually gasped. I'm still feeling nervous about writing my own review, ha. ;)

Reynje Leanne wrote: "Oh my, Reynje, I love your review so much. You expressed the beauty of this book so eloquently and articulately. :) And I agree with you about the Australian cover- it pertains to the content insid..."

Thanks Leanne :) I'm really looking forward to reading yours, but I totally understand how daunting the task of reviewing it is..

About the ending, I'm still not sure I totally understand something: (view spoiler)

message 33: by [deleted user] (last edited Aug 05, 2012 04:14PM) (new)

(view spoiler) Maybe we should wait for other readers to pitch in their opinions?

message 34: by Angela (new) - added it

Angela Gorgeous review, Reynje. Just lovely.

Reynje Thank you Angela :)

Catie Oh's like you said everything I wanted to say, but more beautifully. :) I love this bit: "...the sorrow bought with unchecked desire...". Ag, so true. And I loved reading your take on the possible feminist implications of the book. What did you think about Dominic Mallett's father? He's basically the only male character who is able to resist the spell of the sea brides. I think my favorite chapter was definitely Trudle's - it was so affecting to see Misskaella's final years.

Reynje I honestly thought the exact same thing about your review! Interesting though, that I was so caught up in thinking about the novel from the perspective of the female characters that I hadn't really stopped to consider the males as closely. Trudle's chapter was brilliant - I love the contrasts in the views of Misskaella.

I have to know though.. what did you think of the ending?

Catie (view spoiler)

Reynje (view spoiler)

I think I'll definitely reread this and Tender Morsels eventually..

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