Sealskin by Su Bristow

A ‘selkie‘ is a mythological creature found in Scottish, Irish, Faroese and Icelandic folklore. They are creatures that live in the sea as seals and can shed their skin on land to temporarily obtain the human form.

Su Bristow has taken one of the legends, which is better to discover after you’ve read the story, and woven a coming of age story around it, about a young man unsure of himself, who, through his encounter with a selkie, transforms into a more confident and emotionally intelligent version of himself.

Living on the Scottish coast, Donald is uncomfortable in his own skin and resistant to his mother’s suggestion, that he join his Uncle and the lads who’ve mocked him in the past on the fishing boat, the work his father had done before the sea claimed him. He prefers the solitary task of checking his crab pots, staying close to the shore, his brooding thoughts uninterrupted.

“Picking his way down the path to the shore, on his own at last, he began to feel easier. A night like this! Where else would he be but alone? Cooped up on the boat with the others, there’d have been no time to look, to listen,  to breathe it all in; but out here, with the vastness of sky and sea all to himself, a man might witness marvels.”

Donald and his mother’s live will change course quickly after that night, after he observes something mystical and makes a terrible error of judgement. He in turn, ignores, accepts and tries to atone for his mistake, his life becoming evermore entwined with the fates of his extended family and the people of his village, in doing so.

He becomes more observant and aware of human frailty and how his contribution might ease the path of difficulty and pleasure for those around him.

“It came to him that the way she watched was different from his own. He dealt with people warily, looking out for blows or pitfalls, always glad when the ordeal was over. Nor was she like the priest, watching in order to manage his flock rather than to be like them. She seemed to have no sense of separation, no self-consciousness, and yet she was set further apart then all of them.”

As soon as I heard about this book and its premise, I knew I wanted to read it, it has a little of the magic that made Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child such an enigmatic and yet compelling novel to read. It also reminded me of the equally wonderful novel The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris, based on the true story of Italian prisoner of war soldiers held on the Scottish island of Orkney.

It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking narrative that combines the harshness and wonder of a coastal landscape and lifestyle, with its moments of beauty and hardship, and how it is be different within a community of relatively like-minded souls, how to celebrate that difference and learn to accept it within ourselves. Perfect summer reading!

 

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24 thoughts on “Sealskin by Su Bristow

  1. This sounds just like my kind of book – thank you for highlighting it. I am currently reading Susan Fletcher’s The Silver Dark Sea which sounds very similar – magical, fascinating and utterly un-put-downable! Impressive matching of toe nails, book cover and landscape, by the way 🙂

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    • Thanks Liz, I like to have a bit of fun with the book covers, the matching was all random, no seals in the lake, but plenty of imagination! The Silver Dark Sea sounds magical too, I love stories that take place near the sea, where it inhabits the storyline.

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      • Completely agree about the sea as a character – I like this about places too – I think that was one of the many ways in which The Snow Child worked so well.

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    • I loved it Su, and thank you for reading and commenting on the review, I hope you find and enjoy Philip Paris’s book, he actually wrote two books, a novel and a non-fiction book about that fascinating story, threads of which continue today, as the relationship between communities continues to be maintained by families in both countries.

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  2. I loved Sealskin, but it’s not just a magical retelling of an old legend. This book is compelling, beautiful and sad, looking at themes of feminism, difference, acceptance, fear and repentance. It’s also brutal, cruel and harsh, covering bullying, Stockholm syndrome, men controlling and brutalising women, consent (and the lack of it), and so many people putting up with their lot because they have no alternative. And it shows us that repentance can’t always wash away a wrong done to someone.

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  3. Even more than Sealskin, you’ve made me want to read The Italian Chapel! That one sounds like something I’d love, while I’m never really sure if I’ll like the magical elements in re-told legends.

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    • I guess in a way you could say the same about any novel, there is a magical element in anything and everything that comes from the imagination. Here in sealskin, there is only one element or act that stretches the imagination, everything else is based on the reality of life in that village and for me, the selkie, represented ‘the foreigner’ or even ‘the witch’, those people in a community who come from elsewhere or who have gifts that others can’t relate to, even though there are many who need and indeed value them, sometimes in secrecy.

      The Italian Chapel exists in both fiction and non-fiction which I find interesting in itself, showing that a story can inspire the imagination, while also being worthy of telling in itself, though likely to attract different audiences.

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  4. Excellent review! Sealskin sounds like a novel to quench booklovers’s summer reading thirst. Sold! it’s on my TBR. Reading your lovely piece is the first time I’ve heard of it. Claire you are expanding my list of interesting different books to read. Hope your summer is going well. Let’s have a chat soon. 🙂

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  5. Ha! About midway through reading your review I wondered “would this be a good read for summer?” (since I’ve been feeling less bookish, lately) – and then you answered my question in the end😊.

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  6. I’ve always been drawn to stories that call up mythological references. Even if ‘Sealskin’ is much more than that, as some comments suggest. It happens to be one of the legends Clarissa Pinkola Estes brings profound insight to in ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ — which I recently reread. All of which makes me even more curious about this novel.

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    • Yes, the myths are an interesting lauch pad and invie us to seek out the references, it reminds me of reading Sjon’s The Whispering Muse last year, which was a reference to the epic poem written by Apollonius of Rhodes, The Argonauts. I knew nothing of the poem or the stories it has subsequently inspired, but it added to the reading experience for me to discover more than just the story, (which in my opinion it is ok to read a book just for the story it tells) but the invitation to investigate was too intriguing for me and often these books offer even more upon rereading.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment Deborah 🙂 I remember reading Pinkola Estes book in my 20’s, wonderful, insightful stories, we worth revisiting.

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