I was so pleased to read a book with a good strong plot. Sealskin by Su Bristow moves along at a steady pace and the characters develop through the narrative. I’ve been reading some novels that have little plot and don’t hold my interest from one bedtime reading to the next. This is a strong story, well told, with plenty of authenticity despite the magical legend from which Su Bristow takes her inspiration.
Sealskin– a summary
The story is told from the (3rdperson) point of view of Donald, a young man who lives outside the village with his widowed mother. His father was drowned at sea. He has been bullied as a child and as an adult avoids everyone except his mother. But this is a coastal village, which relies on all adults to bring in the catches, and the men to crew the boats. Donald prefers his own boat, finding crabs close to the shore.
One day he sees a group of seals, selkies, who have slipped out of their skins and are dancing on the strand. Donald is entranced. He finds and hides a skin, so when the selkies flee to the safety of the water, one is left. He catches and rapes her.
She is distressed, of course, so her takes her home and his mother helps him hide her. When he can’t find the seal skin that will enable her to return to the sea they realise she must stay. They hatch an elaborate plot and Donald marries the girl. The village is suspicious, entranced and then hostile in turn to the frail young beauty who does not speak but is intuitive in her responses.
The couple come to love each other as Donald works to atone for the wrong he did. He gains confidence as he supports his wife, becomes a father, stands up for himself and for her and eventually takes over as captain of a boat. His life appears to have turned round but there are still painful challenges ahead of him.
This novel is an adaptation of a selkie legend from northern Scotland, as a page at the end of the book explains. Su Bristow has taken the legend, woven her own characters into its outline, and written movingly about love, atonement, foreignness and loss. It is also a coming-of-age story as Donald gets the support he needs to take his place in the village community. The strongest theme is that of community, how the villagers are interdependent, and are a source of strength and a threat to those who can’t fit in.
The rituals associated with marriage, birth, death and all souls’ night are a strong part of this story. Donald must learn to trust the individuals in the community. And then to extend his hand to those who are not so readily accepted.
Su Bristow won the 2013 Exeter Novel Prize with Sealskin. Most of the action takes place through dialogue, something of an achievement since the selkie woman does not speak. But the coastal setting is powerfully evoked. Here is Donald out in his small boat on his own one night.
There were seals on the skerry tonight, no more than fifty yards of black water and hidden rocks away, on the little strand that was only clear when the tide was low. They looked as though they were basking in the moonlight, though it was far too chill for that. As he watched, a couple more dragged themselves up from the sea, heavy and awkward, moving slowly up the sand. They were rolling, heads swaying to and fro, buffeting each other as they moved clumsily forward. (3)
And although we know what will happen next, this setting, the place where sea and land meet in an every-changing configuration, this liminal space and the interplay of land and sea are vital elements in this story.
Slowly, by just a few minutes each day, light began to come back to the world. Out at sea, it was the birds that brought change, some moving north as the retreating ice opened up new places, and others arriving from the unimaginable south. But on land, the signs were everywhere – in the new green shoots, the urgency of birdsong and the rush of meltwater down from the hills. There was a restlessness, an itch in the blood. (199)
Although this is a tale of magic, it does what fiction does best – transport us to another world to better show us our own.
Sealskin by Su Bristow, published in 2017 by Orenda Books. 226pp
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