Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

a review by Nalini Haynes

Sea Hearts is a string of short stories about a community living on an island, Rollrock, in the 19th or early 20th century. The location of Rollrock is never revealed; it could be an island off Tasmania, Britain or the US. The manner of speech of the characters had a haunting sense of familiarity for me, reflecting barely remembered middle aged to elderly family friends from my early childhood.

Every story is told from a different first person perspective, spanning a few generations during the life of one woman. The opening story shows Misskaella, the witch who called the wives from the sea, as an old woman feared by children. Successive stories reveal how a young Misskaella found her magic and motivations, giving depth to a tragedy. Ramifications of Misskaella’s deeds were explored: the human wives were supplanted by the sea-wives. The sea-wives’ shallow submissiveness creating apparently shallow characters later given depth with their yearning and sorrow. Male selfishness initially appeared as an indictment upon men in the battle of the sexes but this was mitigated by exploring their enchantment and deep love for their sea-wives.

Overall Sea Hearts is a complex exploration of the human condition set in a pure fantasy story, to be enjoyed on a superficial level or to plumb its depths for metaphor and meaning. Never preaching at the reader, hardly even hinting at a possible resolution for the battle of the sexes, and yet Sea Hearts is both metaphor and lesson, for which one must read right through, pondering narrative twists, empathically embracing the paradigms inherent in relationships.

Sea Hearts will win awards. Read it now.