The Blue Salt Road, by Joanne M. Harris (illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins), is a modern folk tale from a master storyteller. It takes the legend of the selkies – seals that can temporarily shed their skins to become people – and weaves a dark tale of passion, loss and revenge.
On an island in the cold north sea, where for weeks in winter the sun barely rises, a community of hunters live with their families. Successful among them is John McCraiceann who wields the harpoon that enables boatmen to kill sea creatures – including dolphins, seals and the lucrative whales. John has a daughter, Flora, who seeks a husband more exciting than those available locally. Her grandmother has shared the secret of how she may capture a lover from the sea.
A young man of the Grey Seal clan has ignored his mother’s stark warnings and visits the island. Intrigued by the people there he sheds his skin and explores while they shelter in their houses after dark. When Flora approaches the coastline and makes her call he answers. He is happy with what she offers, unaware of her plans for him.
Too late the young man realises what Flora has done. Her cunning forces him to attempt to assimilate. To survive he must eat, drink and work as the island people do. He cannot fathom why this feels so wrong.
John convinces the skipper of the boat he works on to accept his strange, new apprentice – both men are happier out at sea than on land. The hunters look to nature for their livelihood and do not regard the sea creatures as sentient. The selkie can no longer understand their songs but is aware that what he is required to do by his new peers is horrific.
Flora tamps down any guilt she feels, convincing herself that her actions were necessary. Her grandmother looks on from a distance, aware that she is responsible. Banished by her daughter there seems little she can do.
Although simply told there are many details that increase the tension. The tale is disturbing and recognisable in its depiction of humans with their casual and accepted violence. The reader is conscious of the peril the selkie finds himself in. Those who would help can only do so at great risk to themselves.
With such a story the denouement is key. It is dealt with deftly, although not all practical questions are answered. The author balances well the need to maintain inherent aspects of the various characters. Despite its dark heart the story is beautifully written and enhanced by exquisite illustrations.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gollancz.