The Brides of Rollrock Island (plus assorted other books)

Mom,

bridesFirst some thoughts on Brides of Rollrock Island, which, although I have been championing it since I first read it back in July (thank you Netgalley), I realize I have never quite put into words why I love it.

What sets Lanagan apart from every other YA writer out there is her prose style.  You already mentioned some aspects to this (her unique adjectives, for one).  Here are a few phrases that I picked out of the book more or less at random:

“It was a poisonous day. Every now and again the wind would take a rest from pressing us to the wall, and try to pull us off it instead.” (p. 3)

“I wore a dress newly handed down from Tatty, and I felt blowsy and floaty in it, not held together properly” (p. 14)

“A little knifing of fear cut me free” (p. 120)

“Against the green-gray of the sea and the mottle-gray of the stony beach, white Aggie glowed” (p. 230)

There are those adjectives again–a poisonous(!) day, blowsy, white Aggie–but there is also just this sense that Lanagan can do anything she wants with words.  “A knifing of fear”, that personification of the wind, the image of not be “held together properly”.  To me it is just incredible.

But what sets this Lanagan apart from her other books is her incredible sense of narrative.  Even in my beloved Tender Morsels there were parts that dragged and her decision to pin the entire plot to the “Snow White Rose Red” story caused just a few hiccups.  This time, she is working from her own story and she uses her prodigious skill as a short story writer to offer an almost prismatic view of the plot, with six different narrators conveying the story to us.  And who are those six narrators: 1) Misskaella, the “witch” herself, 2) Bet Winch, the daughter of a wife soon to be cast aside in favor of a selkie by the Rollrock men, 3) Dominic Mallet, a man put under the spell of the selkies, 4) Daniel Mallet, a half-human, half-seal boy who understands both sides, 5) Lory Severner a foreigner seeing Rollrock for the first time, and 6) Trudle Callisher, the new “witch”. 

This is an incredible array, including almost every perspective you would care to hear from to get a full picture of the events, each one of them (including both “witches”) given full sympathy—and those are just the narrators.  Lanagan also gives plenty of voice to other characters, including the first man to demand a selkie from Misskaella, and especially in Daniel’s chapter, the selkies themselves.  You already mentioned Daniel’s heartbreaking decision to help send the Mams back to the sea.  For me, especially on my second read, the chapter that hit me hardest was the one told by Daniel’s father, Dominic.  Dominic has promised his parents never to marry a selkie, and has left Rollrock and is engaged to a mainlander.  His seemingly entirely sympathetic decision to come back to Rollrock to sell his house and collect some mementos turns horribly tragic when Misskaella ensnares him by offering him a “free” bride.  And then we have to watch him go back to his fiancee and explain himself to her and to himself in a tremendously excruciating scene.  The amazing thing about this chapter is that Lanagan gives the reader no hint (though we can guess) as to what she thinks of Dominic.  She lets him speak for himself, defend himself, and ultimately (in my opinion) hang himself on his own rope.

And that is just one chapter of what is at heart an incredibly tragic novel.  You already mentioned the intimations that the novel’s events have happened before, and in all likelihood will happen again.  On top of that, there is the tragedy of Misskaella: the bullied youngest daughter who doesn’t understand her powers, slowly becoming embittered to the entire population of men in the island (for good reason?).  And though we know about her first tryst with the king seal and her son Ean, the most heartbreaking moment of all comes in the final chapter, in which Misskaella’s apprentice discovers after her death that Misskaella had two more children by the king seal, and gave all three of them back to the sea.  I have a feeling that if there are people out there who doubt this novel’s greatness it may be because of this almost relentless sadness to the story, much in the same way that Tender Morsels‘s detractors reacted to the story’s horrifying sexual violence.  That’s not to say that there are no good reasons to dislike either of these novels, just that I completely understand if people who read them recoil from them on a purely visceral level.

bombSo that’s some of what I think of the Lanagan.  Briefly on your other thoughts.  I have read all of Someday’s final ten contenders except for Raven Boys which is In Transit to my library as we speak.  I’ve read twice Code Name Verity, Bomb, and Brides of Rollrock, and I have made my opinions on CNV very clear to just about everyone, so I’ll leave that one alone.  Bomb I continue to wobble on due to the allegations over its shoddy sourcing, but I continue to think that as a piece of narrative it is one of the strongest things I’ve read all year.  I agree with you, too, about The Fault in Our Stars and Every Day–they are not serious contenders in my world and need no rereading (in fact, I’m a little stunned at the support TFiOS got over on Someday’s poll after the drubbing it took in the main post on the novel).  I thought The Diviners was astonishingly good, but I’m very curious to hear your thoughts when you finish it, because I know that we have slightly different takes on Libba Bray.  Seraphina and Ask the Passengers each deserve a rereading from me, but we’ll see if I have time to get to them.

aynwAs for where you should direct your reading, Beth Fama recently reminded me of my early championing (on this blog and over on Someday) of Adele Griffin’s All You Never Wanted.  I don’t actually think this book have a chance of winning any awards, but I continue to think it is a very strong book in a very strong year.  In fact, along with Ask the Passengers and Graffiti Moon, I think it’s one of the three best Contemporary Realistic novels of the year.  So, considering the traditional biases of the Printz Award in favor of that genre, I suppose it might have a chance after all.

Never Fall Down, which got a National Book Award nod, could make an appearance, and even if it doesn’t it is well worth a read if only for the historical information about the Khmer Rouge.  So too No Crystal Stair–an incredible piece of history turned into fiction.  I’ve read that one twice and my second read convinced me that it is somewhat deficient as literature, but it is a very quick read that will broaden your mind about various aspects of the African American experience in the mid-Twentieth Century.

I’m still mulling over In Darkness, and that will probably require a separate blog post anyway, but rest assured that I very much appreciated the recommendation, and I could see it as a dark horse Printz contender.

So those are my book thoughts for now.  Hopefully my copy of Raven Boys will come in soon and I’ll be all up to speed.

– Mark

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5 Comments

Filed under Books, Teens

5 responses to “The Brides of Rollrock Island (plus assorted other books)

  1. Jen J.

    I assumed The Fault in Our Stars got so much support mostly because almost everyone has read it. I know I picked it as one of my choices (of which there were only about five – definitely not ten) because of the things I’ve read it deserves to be discussed. I still have four of the final to read though (Diviners, Ask the Passengers, Brides and Every Day – three of which I have at home waiting for me) and hadn’t read a bunch of what was nominated yet. While I would not pick TFiOS as one of my final votes (we get to vote for three, right?) I definitely rate it above things I’ve read that were nominated like Keeping the Castle and Team Human – both of which I greatly enjoyed, but which I don’t think call for a seat at this year’s Printz discussion table. I just finished All You Never Wanted and found it excellent, but unsettling – worthy of discussion for sure.

  2. Mark Flowers

    Thanks Jen – that makes a lot of sense. I haven’t read Team Human, but I’ve read Keeping the Castle, and I can certainly agree that (even if I *liked* KTC better) TFiOS is more worthy of discussion. I also keep forgetting that not everyone on that blog has been reading as much as I have this year.

  3. TeenReader

    I had two main problems, unrelated to the sadness of the novel, that I think puts it below CNV, Bomb, and possibly The Fault in Our Stars and Ask the Passengers in my book. First, I thought that the wide time span the novel undertook left some deficiencies. Huge events felt like more of a summary then an actual event, and Misskaella fell to the background for most of the middle act. Second, I thought that some of the minor characters, especially Miskaella’s family and Trudle, seemed two-dimensionally cruel. It isn’t a huge flaw, but it stood out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the excellent, complex characterization. Especially in terms of voice and style, this book was exceptional, but the best of the year? I don’t think so.
    (I love the blog by the way, thanks for the interesting posts!)

    • Mark Flowers

      Thanks for the thoughts TeenReader. As to your points:

      1) I think it is entirely intentional that Misskaella drops out of the story in the middle–the focus at that point is on the reprecussions of her actions, and so we are given access to the Mallets (especially) and others to see what happened to the island. I can see not liking that choice, especially if one is especially invested in learning more about Misskaella, but I think it is a perfectly valid way to tell the story. (Also–I know that BRIDES started life as a novella. I have no idea whether this is true, but it seems logical that the novella was what we know as the Misskaella chapter, and that when Lanagan went to expand it into a novel, she chose to take things from a different angle. So, what you’re objecting to *might* be an artifact of that transformation if my hunch is correct. Take that with several large grains of salt.)

      2) I’m not sure which events you have in mind as sounding like summary, but I think I see your point. The novel reads (as I’ve written elsewhere) like a series of interlocked short stories, or to put it differently as a set of snapshots of the island at different moments. In order to focus on the particular snapshots Lanagan’s interested in, it requires giving us a bit of summary of events which in a different novel we might have expected to have focused on. Personally, I like this style of writing, (and I get quickly bored with novels and movies that hit the same beats at the same time), but your mileage may vary.

      3) Two-dimensional characters. Yeah, I can see that. You say it’s not a huge flaw and I agree, but it is certainly there. Trudle is probably a bigger problem than Misskaella’s family because with the family you could argue (and I would) that we are seeing them through the eyes of a young and relatively naive viewpoint. Still, every novel has its side characters–I can’t remember a single thing about anyone in TFiOS except for the protagonists, and while I know others disagree I find Von Linden in CNV to be a painfully flat character (Jamie and everyone Maddie meets in France too, for that matter). So, while I’m inclined to agree that not every character is as three dimensional as Missk and the Malletts, I think you could apply the same standard to pretty much every novel of similar length. ASK THE PASSENGERS might be the exception, as AS King is a complete master at characterization in very few words.

      But since I think every other book out there suffers when compared to Lanagan’s prose style, it is all a matter of weighing what components of a book we think are most important. I’ve already said on this blog that prose is first in my mind–but it’s good to remember that that’s a bias I need to be aware of. So even though I continue to think BRIDES is the best of the year, If I was at the Printz table, I would be more than happy to trade BRIDES down to Honor level and give the gold to ASK THE PASSENGERS, BOMB, TITANIC, or SERAPHINA (but definitely not TFiOS) if that’s the way the consensus was trending.

  4. Pingback: Back to Printz Thoughts | crossreferencing

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