sealskinWhat happens when magic collides with reality? 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?

Prepare to be completely entranced by Sealskin, a mystical and emotive novel by debut author, Su Bristow. Set in a small fishing community on the west coast of Scotland, Bristow weaves a magical tale tinged with sadness, regret and violence drawing on the traditional folkloric stories of shape-changing Selkies, and their mesmeric effect on the hapless men that encounter them. One such man is Donald Macfarlane, a formerly quiet and naïve individual, who experiences a phenomenal change of character to forcibly abduct a young Selkie woman, and integrate her into his family and community. What transpires is a story, that in its seeming simplicity, explores many threads of human nature, and the real meaning of community, family and love…

I was instantly held in the swirling, mystical air of this story, and quickly developed an instant feeling of empathy or strong dislike for the characters contained within it. The way that Bristow explores the changes that Mairhi’s arrival in this close knit community, and on those who dwell within it, is a constant source of enjoyment throughout the book. Mairhi’s influence on a whole array of individuals, for better or worse, exposes some real schisms in the community, and behaviour that was previously overlooked or accepted comes to be exposed as truly the opposite. There is a real growing in strength in some of the female characters in particular, and by the same token, a noticeable reigning in of the arrogant and violent behaviour of some of the male residents. The way Bristow leaves her without verbal communication allows us to view her as a human prism through which other’s behaviour is seen and judged, and although not wholly childlike she does have this aura about her. The changes she brings to Donald’s character in particular is striking, exposing a man formerly crippled by insecurity in a community where masculinity is prized, who grows in stature and confidence as he builds a life with her.  In the day to day lives of the village’s inhabitants, Bristow carefully navigates the realm of the real and the spiritual, drawing in the themes of the tough existence of the fishermen, the influence of religion in the community, and the adherence to the old ways of natural cures and respect for the traditional. This is very strong in Donald’s mother, Bridie, who practices, and is regularly called on for, her craft in traditional cures,  and the community as a whole exposes division and suspicion roughly drawn along the lines of those who subscribe to the retaining of tradition and those that embrace the folkloric. Hence, the arrival of Mairhi, is cause for further suspicion, moments of violence, and an eventful and emotional journey to some degree of acceptance for more than one character along the way.

Bristow’s portrayal of the bleak and wild coastal landscape is never less than perfect, reflecting the extremes of weather and seasonal changes that impact on this small community and shape their lives. The changeable spirit of the ocean that punishes or provides in equal measure is at the heart of this story, and the author’s descriptions of this windswept terrain, flora and fauna is vivid and tangible to the reader. Whether it is the cries of the seals, the raging of the sea, the hostility of winter, or the blooming promise of spring, the descriptions consistently arouse our senses and form bright, vivid pictures in the mind.

It’s been a while since I have been utterly lost in a book, but Sealskin produced this very effect. Set apart by its difference in subject to much of modern fiction, it held me totally in its grip, and the ending was something special and unexpected too. A book that is tinged with sadness, but utterly magical too. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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