Sealskin, by Su Bristow, is a poignant love story based on the mythical tale of the selkies – seals that can shrug off their skins to become human. I have read stories involving these beings before and remained unimpressed. Not so with this mesmerising interpretation. I was spellbound throughout, even though I guessed how it must end.
Donald is a young fisherman who lives with his widowed mother on a croft set above their village on a remote coast in north-west Scotland. He is a loner who does what he can to avoid going to sea. The camaraderie of his peers is something he observes but struggles to join in with. His memories of growing up in this small community are of being bullied and teased. He has learned to find his peace in solitude, to defer to his mother when decisions must be made.
On a clear autumn night Donald takes his small rowboat out to check the crab pots he maintains, putting to shore in a deserted cove when he spots naked young women emerge from a group of seals. He comes across their abandoned pelts and guesses what they must be. On an impulse he decides to violently intervene.
A distraught selkie is left with no choice but to accompany Donald to his home. There his mother quickly realises what he has done and concocts a plan that they hope will enable the young woman, who they name Mairhi, to stay. The local people are suspicious of any new face, especially one foisted on them without notice. Donald must step up his behaviour if he is to protect his catch and the child she will eventually bear.
He feels guilt for his actions but his mother convinces him that he must live with the choice he made. She sets about teaching the girl how to act amongst people, how to carry out the tasks expected of the women. They discover that Mairhi also has much to offer them. Donald’s life is altered forever.
The close knit community’s reluctance to accept any who appear different seems particularly pertinent given recent world events. They look away when discomfited by how some of their own treat their families but struggle to ignore that which they cannot explain. Mairhi has innate powers that she wishes to use for good; the dark suspicion with which these are treated puts her at constant risk of rejection.
Donald does his best to provide and make her happy but realises that she remains his captive. Although tolerated by his wider family and becoming a mother to his children, he fears what Mairhi would do if given the choice.
The writing captures the voice of the region to perfection. The harsh and beautiful landscape along with the stoic yet community minded people are expertly evoked. This is proof that a story need not be original to be worth the telling. Curl up by a fireside and immerse yourself in this exquisite tale.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.
This review is a stop on the Sealskin Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.
Sealskin in published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.