Fittingly for the first week of the New Year, I had an epiphany. It was nothing as startling as the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ, but it has nevertheless had an important consequence. Following the lead of my teenage son, who clearly has far more sense than me, I deleted my social media apps from my phone. Instead of wasting far too much time watching Facebook videos about how to ice cookies or make a microwave cake in a mug (we don’t have a microwave), I have more time to read. Hence why only 9 days in to 2018, I’ve read 2 books. An auspicious start, I feel.
Selkies live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land. If a selkie loses its sealskin, it is unable to return to the sea. ‘Sealskin‘ was a Christmas present as I had read many positive reviews about it. The novel is a re-working of the selkie myth, telling the story of Donald Macfarlane.
An awkward lad, Donald lives alone with his mother, a healer and midwife. Scorned by his peers for being unable to work on the fishing boats due to the sensitivity of his skin, Donald makes his money hauling crabs from the sea. It is whilst checking his creels that he finds a pile of abandoned sealskins and takes one, hiding it. Coming upon the owner of the skin, Donald forces himself upon her. Separated from her skin, the young girl is trapped on land. Donald takes her home to his mother and, inventing a plausible cover-story to explain her sudden arrival, they name her Mairhi. Donald takes the selkie as his wife.
Over time, Mairhi becomes integrated into the life of the fishing village. Even though she never learns to speak, Donald and Mhairi develop an intimacy and understanding whose evolution is a poignant and touching story. She and Donald are initially outsiders in their community, but Mairhi follows in Bridie’s footsteps as a medicine woman, gradually earning the trust of the villagers. Donald grows in confidence, nourished by the love in his marriage, becoming a respected member of his community. But Mairhi’s longing for the sea permeates the story with a haunting sense of loss.
I did not feel a strong sense of place within the novel, but the weather is a character in itself. Instead this is a book about people; their hopes, suspicion of incomers, their desire to be accepted, redemption and the power of love. It is an unlikely piece of work for me to like as I’m not a fan of mystical writing usually, but I was carried away it. Su Bristow has created a sealskin herself – I was left hoping that someone would hide the book, so that I could remain stranded within its pages and not have to slide back into the waves of everyday life!