Today I’m pleased to welcome Su Bristow to the blog. Su’s debut novel, Sealskin, is published by Orenda Books on 15 February 2017.
Today Su is talking about the Selkie Legend, which inspired the novel and how there’s more to it than first appears.
I’d like to unpick the selkie legend a little, and talk about the difficult issues at the heart of it. Lots of people have said to me ‘Oh, I love that story!’ And it is certainly romantic, melancholy, magical – but it’s also about rape and abduction.
The legend tells us how a lonely fisherman, seeing the selkies come ashore and become beautiful young women, falls in love with one of them, hides her sealskin and ‘takes her home to be his wife’. In some versions, there is detail about how she weeps and begs him to let her go, and how, although they marry and have children, she never forgets her life as a seal. And when she finds the skin again, she goes straight back to the sea, leaving husband and children behind.
I could have told it that way, and it would be yet another sad tale of how men abuse women. But there’s so much more here than that, and the story wouldn’t stick in your mind the way it does if there weren’t other layers to be explored. That’s why I told it from Donald’s point of view. What if the fisherman regretted what he had done, and tried to make amends? How would that be?
Straight away, you have a much more nuanced and poignant story: of two people, both damaged, both struggling to cope with life, and both with a huge capacity for love and joy. Real people, in other words, just like you and me. And although it is a kind of fairytale, there is no happy ending; the dilemmas inherent in the lives of Mairhi and Donald are not resolvable. Just like most of life’s big questions, in fact – and we’re back to legends again, because what they do, in their countless wonderful ways, is to explore these big questions.
About the book:
“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.”