Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous … and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives – not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?
Based on the legend of the selkies – seals who can transform into people – Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Exeter Novel Prize-winner Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set. And it is, quite simply, unforgettable.
I first read about Sealskin a few months ago and have been quietly stalking it ever since, I do love magical realism books and this one sounded exactly my cup of tea. The very first line of the book immediately drew me in,
"You can't trust moonlight."
Yet within a few pages I felt a little uneasy, Donald's actions made me feel very uncomfortable and while I have no issue with violence in books I wasn't expecting it here and it did make me question whether it was the book I expected. The answer is no, it probably isn't but what I took from the story was so much more profound and unforgettable. I'm glad I decided to read on because what follows is a masterclass in evocative storytelling. The characterisation, the scene setting, the plot, all combine into a truly wonderful story. Yes, there is that dreadful act at the start but it's worth remembering that traditional fairy tales were often violent and the myth that inspired Sealskin is no different and while inexcusable it was the moment that necessarily determines what follows.
Donald's actions that night shape not just his life but the lives of his entire community, and it's a community that although necessarily tight-knit - these are people living tough lives, dictated to by the land, weather and frequently cruel sea - has a darker side. Mhairi's introduction changes them all irrevocably, secrets are uncovered, truths told and lessons, sometimes reluctantly, learnt. What I loved was seeing all the characters grow, even those who initially seem unlikeable are touched in some way by a remarkable woman who may not have the power of human speech but is somehow still able to to transform their lives.
If I lived alone I would have forgotten to eat, so immersed was I in this little village on the west coast of Scotland. It is so beautifully crafted, so richly described and, despite it's mythic inspiration actually a book that reveals an enduring truth about human frailties and strengths, about love, forgiveness, acceptance and loss. It will be a book I will be recommending for years to come, certain books come along that touch something inside of you, and Sealskin is one of those books.
Many thanks to Orenda for my review copy. And some more good news from Orenda, they now have an ebook store, check it out for exciting and original fiction from across the world!