Sea Hearts, Margo Lanagan, Allen and Unwin, 2012
RRP: $19.99 Australian.
I feel guilty. I finished this book back in July but my thesis work attacked me and gave me heart palpitations over how much I still had left to do on it. Hence, this blog has had blog posts scattered few and far between since July. To be honest, I should still be doing thesis work as I type, but this book is too good to give short shrift in the reviews department.
I’d heard a bit about Sea Hearts through the blogosphere grapevine, and of course, Margo was also at the Sydney Writer’s Festival this year discussing the dark limits (and horizons) of speculative fiction, including those explored in Sea Hearts. I bought a copy for the holiday break alongside Margo’s short story collection, Red Spikes, as a semester ending treat.
My relationship with Lanagan’s work is somewhat odd. I have long respected her ability to twist and innovate with her language and narrative structure. I love the way her prose rips your heart out with poetic and wild abandon. Yet I absolutely hated her novel, Tender Morsels, a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red. Her ‘colour’ based short story collections, Black Juice, White Time, Red Spikes and Yellowcake are both hit and miss. Sea Hearts could have gone either way for me.
Chatting to Richard Harland at Supanova this year, he told me he felt it was Margo’s best work since the Hugo winning short story, ‘Singing my Sister Down,’ found in Black Juice. Having finally read both, I can now wholeheartedly agree with him.
Sea Hearts, set in a world so close to ours it very well could be, (a particular trick of Lanagan’s) takes place on remote Rollrock Island, where the shunned and lonely sea witch, Miskealla, draws sea girls out of the seals that frequent the island beaches. In exchange for payment, any man on Rollrock can now purchase himself a sea bride, but what will this deed do for generations of families as deceit, lust, heartbreak and love tear the island apart?
The novel alternates between six islander perspectives, each multi faceted first person account piercing the part myth, part fairy story cautionary, part Greek hubris tale together, until a picture of what has happened is formed. Even as characters infuriate with their vanity and short sightedness, there is still sympathy to be had. Even as Miskaella’s petty scheme begins to take its toll, I still found it in my heart to feel sorry for the witch outsider. Even as men calleously copulated with sea creatures under their wives very noses, I still could see how they had made the decisions they had made, and even as the human women grow aged and bitter and hard, I could understand why they changed. Who could not in such circumstances? Who could not?
This is a novel that dishes out truthes about humanity hard. It is often an uncomfortable, searing read. Undertaking a history thesis, as I am, I have often wondered about Lanagan’s background. Learning this year that she had training in history, I can see this reflected in her work. There is an interest in truth making, mythology making, oral history as power and post modern relativism in Sea Hearts, as there often is in her short stories. The nature of love and relationships is uncompromisingly explored, with another reviewer pointing out that the Australian cover has connotations of the placid, docile, Asian mail order bride stereotype. Lanagan asks what it is that men, stripped back to their basest instincts, truly want from a relationship with a woman. Are lust, domesticity and obediance their basest desires? Ending on a note of reconciliation and hope, Lanagan never answers this question, but leaves it up to the reader to decide. I found myself thinking of my relationship with my own boyfriend, and wondering just how much it would take for him to succumb to a ‘sea wife.’ Not a comfortable thought, but one that shows this novel’s power, complexity, and raging heart.
Beautiful and evocatively written, with the prose lyrical and inventive, Sea Hearts is Margo Lanagan’s best piece of writing. I am excited to see where she will go next.
Sea Hearts: 5/5 inky stars.
Stephen Ormsby recently interviewed Margo at his word press blog. Please follow the link to read more about Margo and the way she thinks about, and constructs stories.
Margo also has her own blog at Among Amid While: http://www.amongamidwhile.blogspot.com.au/