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Sealskin by Su Bristow

Article by swirlandthread ©.
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‘What happens when magic collides with reality?’

Sealskin is a novel by herbalist and author Su Bristow.

Just published by Orenda Books, Sealskin is something very very different that has caused me a few sleepless hours.

Please read on to find out why…

When I started Sealskin I was very taken aback by the violent scene that unfolded in the first few pages. I found it very difficult to get my head around what happened and how this despicable act was accepted and hidden as the book continued. On completion of the book this incident sat very uncomfortably with me. So I took a few days away from it and researched the Selkie Legend. This is where things changed for me.

Now I’m Irish, which makes me Celtic and admittedly I knew nothing of Selkies.

Defined by Wikipedia as ‘a mythological creature…If a man steals a female selkie’s skin she is in his power and is forced to become his wife. Female selkies are said to make excellent wives, but because their true home is the sea, they will often be seen gazing longingly at the ocean. If she finds her skin she will immediately return to her true home…. Sometimes, a selkie maiden is taken as a wife by a human man and she has several children by him. In these stories, it is one of her children who discovers her sealskin (often unwitting of its significance) and she soon returns to the sea….’

This definition was very important to me in reviewing this book because it is the use of the word ‘force’ that made me fully realise that as I was reading Sealskin, I was reading the retelling of a the Selkie legend. I needed to suspend my beliefs on right and wrong, as I would in any fairy tale, and accept it for just that ~ a legend.

The setting for Sealskin is a village set in the very bleak and remote west coast of Scotland. Donald lives there with his mother, Bridie, since the untimely loss of his father to the sea many years previously. Bridie is an herbalist who cares for the folk of the community and Donald is a struggling fisherman. Between them, their life is a very simple one, living off the land and sea. Since his father’s death, Donald has lived a very lonely life, seeking his own company over that of the villagers, who have taunted and bullied him over the years.

One night, Donald comes upon a magical scene, one that fishermen up and down the coast of Scotland and beyond only ever dream of. His actions that night change the course of his life forever.

‘That dance was never meant for you. They were maidens, ready for mating’

Su Bristow describes Mairhi, as almost waif like, ethereal as she is brought into the household. Bridie immediately takes charge. Donald, on realising the full extent of what he has done, decides to make right, as best he can in the following months.

Mairhi is frightened of Donald and shrinks away from him but over time there is an understanding and life takes a new and unexpected turn for Donald.

In Sealskin, the people are very much the story. The community, the bitterness, the scandals, the humility ~ all shouldered by individuals used to dealing with hardship. This is not a story told in modern times with all the mod cons we take for granted. This is a story of a time gone by where you stood up to be counted, where your contribution to society was vital for it’s very survival.

Donald grows throughout this novel. He becomes a man.

Sealskin is a novel you read without prejudice and with the legend of the Selkie in your heart. It is a retelling of what I now know is a famous legend, passed between generations, among communities that believe in magic and especially the magic of the sea.