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June Discussion – Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Sea HeartsSea Hearts by Margo Lanagan certainly provided some thoughtful and critical discussion.

Firstly we talked about the “creation” of Miskaella from child to teen to witch by her family and the community in general and how Lanagan positions readers to feel sympathy for Miskaella. We discussed how abysmally she is treated by her mother and sisters, treating her as a “Cinderella” type figure because she is clearly the “other” in this community.  We spent some time discussing Miskaella’s physical appearance, agreeing that in the eyes of the community she is seen to be a “throwback” to something in the past that no one wishes to discuss or acknowledge; she is a genetic reminder to the town of their former relations with the seal community. The hatred her mother feels toward her is born out of resentfulness as her mother’s family is one who has not cohabited with seals but she has married into a family that did.  Some of us had differing ideas about what she actually looks like and we talked about the end of the novel where, as she ages, she has curly red and white hair. It was noted how often in fiction red hair stands for “otherness”. In contrast, the constructed idea of beauty in Sea Hearts is the selkie wives with their long silky black hair. Miskaella is persecuted and described as fat, ugly and short and we pondered whether the people in the town have such animosity toward her because she is seal-like.  We were unsure about what Lanagan is trying to convey here because the seal women themselves are tall, lean and perfect.  We wondered whether Lanagan is being inconsistent or if she is making a comment about genetics or that the sins of the past reappear in strange ways.

Miskaella is very much the tortured soul and we commented how sad and isolated her life is that she can live out her whole pregnancy and her son’s first few months without anyone knowing.  The townspeople only notice how thin, less scary and “normal” she looks when she is in this happiest phase of her life.  We commented that perhaps the seal king makes her feel beautiful and therefore she no longer cares what others think and so is beautiful. She becomes ugly again when she realises that she must give her son back to the sea and there is no change in her life or circumstances.  Trudles also has some of the same characteristics – she is short, disabled and marked by her difference.  From the beginning then these women who look different are treated differently by others and they become what the townspeople expect of them.  Miskaella does not try to compete with her sisters, she just plots her revenge.  We talked about when Miskaella is a little girl and shunned by her playmates and the repercussions that gossip has on a community and how children can be poisoned by adults with their biases and prejudices towards difference.  We agreed that she does not start out as evil or bad and she does have a moral conscious about the repercussions of her action and therefore the towns’ folk must share some of the blame for their treatment of her.  We felt that even at the end of the novel Miskaella, who seemingly holds all the power in the community, is still captive to the community.  Even as she accumulates all her possessions she only does this to prove a point and moves to the cave once her sisters die and sho no longer needs her revenge.

Many of us wondered about Margo Lanagan’s feminist subtext. We found that her depiction of the selkie women, whom the men prefer to the local women, as very smooth, brown skinned and submissive, but with no option of escape, had many parallels with ‘mail-order’ Asian brides and arranged marriages. The local women are cantankerous and weather beaten whilst the seal wives are serene. Even the way the men go to the beach and select their seal reminded us of catalogue shopping for the perfect partner. We thought Lanagan was making a strong commentary about male and female relationships.  This led to a discussion of the cover of the novel which clearly looks like an Asian woman (definitely not Celtic) and we were not overly taken with this cover and felt it misrepresented the story.

This led then to a very powerful discussion about the subtext of the natures and desires of men and the representation of masculinity. We noted that the men know that the women are pining for the sea and desperately unhappy yet they continue to lock up their only exit route.  The men make small admissions of care urging their sons to look after their mothers but the needs of the women are completely subservient to the sexual needs of the men.  We attempted to answer the question, are the men powerless or are they completely selfish? We agreed that they are both and felt the age old biblical story of Eve as temptress or siren is explored in this novel.  It was noted that if the reader believes the men are “bewitched” then that excuses a lot of bad behaviour. It allows the men complete abrogation of responsibility and that, as readers, if we buy into that argument then we are party to it.  We compared it to the defence that perpetrators of violence use against women to blame the victim; that she ‘deserved it’ or ‘had it coming to her’ because of her own behaviour. We also did not think that Lanagan wants us to believe they were bewitched but we also raised the point that why was there no man on the island who stood up and said no?  No man refuses to go down to the beach with the witch so are they bewitched even before she places her spell or are they driven by lust and greed when they see the other men with their seal wives?  It was also expressed that there is a real sense of passage of time in this novel, that this community has been through this cycle before and that although no one speaks of it is has left a scar on the town.  So, over the past years there has been some restraint shown and a reinstating of the status quo before the cycle starts again.

Some of us felt that although Lanagan herself described the leaving of the selkie women as a tragedy, the pain and suffering of the men is not tragic enough.  The men miss and grieve for their sons but they do not have the same feelings for their wives. We thought perhaps it is because their relationships are based on infatuation and not true love.  The men do not connect emotionally with their wives, either their original local wives or their selkie wives, and they are off at the Inn each night drinking, singing and bonding intimately and intellectually with the other men. Life for all the women is difficult; they marry young, have babies straight away, some die in child-birth and they have no agency over their lives. Aside from their relationships with their sons the seal women only connect when they are together and they groom each other, mimicking animal behaviours. A powerful message is also obvious in the scene when the boys are returned to the fishermen and the fishermen are seen to be rendering the seals down for fuel for lamps. The fishermen do not know which seal they are killing and whether or not the seal is one of their wives yet the seal’s usefulness is either as wife or fuel. At times we were shocked by some of the events that happened in the book.  Some of us had our suspicions but others were entirely taken by surprise at the husband and father who hides one of the seal girls in his own back cupboard for his own pleasures.  We were very pleased when his wife packs up the entire family and moves them to the mainland. We were also shocked to learn that Miskaella has three sons; a point in the novel not neatly tied up and neither is the paternity of Trudle’s children established.

A discussion of the actions of the sons in freeing their mothers, an act of love, also raised more questions rather than answered them. We acknowledged that the fathers did love their sons but wondered if the boys were more connected to their mothers’ pain because they were half-seal or because of the bond between mothers and sons. We felt that when the boys found their mothers’ coats they understood them.  We also wondered whether or not this type of magical relationship has a ‘use by’ date.  It seemed that when the first mother hangs herself, followed shortly after by the mother who throws herself into the sea that a stupor comes over the community and the mothers take to their beds with depression.  Is this an animal reaction to the death of one of their own, does the magic only work for a short time, or is this nature’s way of ending unnatural behaviours?

We also had some differing ideas about sending the girl babies back into the sea – is it a sacrifice or is it an act of love? Are they sending their female babies away to protect them from a life of servitude or is it because they have too much seal in them. Perhaps it also guarantees the destruction of a community that cannot reproduce itself and is creating a natural endpoint where someone from the mainland has to come in to the community to prevent inbreeding. We saw that the fate of the island was regeneration but were surprised that Trudle’s offspring had not created partnerships with the sons.

We discussed the quote,

An unhappy mother is never a good thing for a child

and acknowledged that no matter how loving the mothers are and absorbed in their sons the sons know that something is not quite right. We saw parallels with children who can suffer with parents with mental illness, depression or divorce as their parents go through motions.  We discussed the idea of imperfection and reality might equal happiness in relationships.

A criticism of the novel was that perhaps some of the changes in the town happened too quickly for one witch’s lifetime and it was difficult to follow the sequencing at times. We felt that it was easier to read this novel in one sitting rather than coming back to it as the multiple narrator format and switching back and forth in time was challenging. One of the greatest strengths of this novel is the language.  Some of us felt transported by the beautiful figurative language that clearly evokes a time and place.  We thought it was not like a usual fantasy novel; perhaps it fits more into the genre of magical realism.  It inspired some in the group to read more from this author.  In the USA, Sea Hearts has the title, The Brides of Rollrock Island.  We did not like this title and it was commented that neither title was going to be great seller.  Some of you would only give to good readers or to year 12 English teachers who could deal with the issues. Others in the group would love to discuss this novel with a class of girls and the ideas of socially constructed ideas of beauty as they felt it would be a useful resource to discuss reader positioning of the way women and girls are portrayed in our society. We were very pleased when Margo Lanagan followed and retweeted some of the member’s tweets during our discussion.

Like some of the other books we have read we were surprised that it is considered a children’s book and felt that it could easily be put into a general fiction area.  Many adults are put off by YA fiction (what they are missing out on!) and we felt that a whole readership of adults who would enjoy this novel will not be exposed to it.