Book Review: The Blue Salt Road

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.

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Book Review: Sealskin

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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.

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Sealskin in published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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