Sealskin Paperback – 15 Feb 2017
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quot;This assured and readable story is determined to show that change and growth are possible, even on the very margins of society. The heartfelt message seems to be that acceptance comes when individuals face up to their fears and act for the good beyond themselves. The love of Donald for mysterious Mairhi is beautifully done." --The Guardian
"Bristow has drawn a portrait of the unforgiving life of fishermen and the women who rely on their care, while tenderly and carefully portraying a terrible physical and psychological violation and its years-long reverberations. The writing is sorrowful and lovely, with a well-earned, satisfying conclusion." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)
About the Author
Su Bristow is a consultant medical herbalist by day. She's the author of two books on herbal medicine: The Herbal Medicine Chest and The Herb Handbook; and two on relationship skills: The Courage to Love and Falling in Love, Staying in Love, co-written withpsychotherapist, Malcolm Stern. Her published fiction includes 'Troll Steps' (in the anthology, Barcelona to Bihar), and 'Changes' which came second in the 2010 CreativeWritingMatters flash fiction competition. Sealskin is set in the Hebrides, and it's a reworking of the Scottish and Nordic legend of the selkies, or seals who can turn into people. It won the Exeter Novel Prize 2013. Her writinghas been described as 'magical realism; Angela Carter meets Eowyn Ivey'.
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Yes, I was bewitched by the exquisite prose and the finely described sense of place, but it was the understanding of human nature and how we deal with shocks, violence, and hatred that I found so profound. I feel almost tearful just thinking about it now, but don’t get me wrong, as with the best stories, they are tears that I’m happy to shed.
This is a very special book, unputdownable and unforgettable. Wow!
Donald is a lucky man - one night he sees something that people have only dreamed about, but his thoughtless actions break the magic and he finds himself, and his family, living with the consequences. Donald's mother, Bridie, is well respected in the village and people come to her for potions and help with delivering babies. When Donald brings Mairhie home, Bridie takes her under her wing and teaches her everything that she knows, plus Mairhie has a little magic of her own. The villagers are naturally suspicious of Mairhie, but gradually they warm to her as she endears herself to them, however, the sea starts to call... Will Mairhie listen or will she accept the life she has been given on land? She doesn't have a choice while her sealskin remains lost...but does somebody hold the key to its whereabouts?
Sealskin is perhaps the most beautiful book I have read in a long time. I was captured in its net from chapter 1 and only released when I had turned the final breathtaking page. Su Bristow has such lyrical writing that I felt as if I was in the book myself, standing at the door of the cottage or watching the fishing boats coming back to shore. I had serious difficulty in putting the book down and, had I not been going out, would have read Sealskin in one sitting.
Make sure you have a few hours spare before reading Sealskin, as you will not want to put it down and it deserves, and cries out, to be read in one sitting. Gather your bucket and spade and head to the seaside as Sealskin is a bucketful of adjectives: beautiful, breathtaking, magnificent, exceptional, outstanding and magical...to name but a few. I will definitely be reading it again, and that surely must be a cast-iron recommendation!
Now I understand why Sealskin is such a worthy winner of the Exeter Novel Prize, and I look forward to Su Bristow's next offering.
Donald Macfarlane has been bullied and teased for most of his life and, as a result, has grown up self-conscious and introverted. An incapacitating skin condition doesn’t help and makes fishing difficult. He keeps himself isolated from the rest of the small fishing village where he lives a lonely life with his mother, Bridie. Out one night, seeing to the crab pots, Donald witnesses something spectacular and his impulsive and forceful reactions have far reaching consequences for himself and everyone around him. He has to live with the repercussions of his actions even as he tries to atone for his wrongdoing. And although the initial fault lies with Donald, it was compounded by his mother’s intervention. The story is, at heart, the retelling of a selkie legend brought to life with a diverse and complex cast of characters amid the wild and rugged backdrop of a rural Scottish landscape.
The setting is described wonderfully, with evocative and vivid imagery, beautiful prose and in depth characterisations. So much so that I was there, witnessing the story unfolding. The perception and understanding of human nature seems very intuitive. Donald especially, grows and changes beyond recognition. From an insular and ineffectual youth who does something terrible in a moment of madness, to someone who learns the true meaning of love, understanding others and the torment of loss. His personal development is due entirely to Mairhi and he loves her completely.
Very much a character driven tale with Mairhi, Donald and Bridie at the forefront, although the rest of the cast have an important part to play. Mairhi is an enchanting character, delicate, other worldly and fully innocent. She is initially much mistrusted as an incomer by the village residents who are hardy, down to earth souls. They begin to realise she has a special, magical quality which benefits the community, although not everyone understands or makes her unconditionally welcome, even as their lives are transformed. Bridie is the stalwart member of the family, but her decision to play a part in controlling Mairhi’s fate won’t let her rest and she becomes tormented by remorse.
Despite beginning with an act of violence (according to legend if a selkie’s skin is taken and hidden from her, she is in the man’s power and forced to become his wife) this is a beautiful, captivating and haunting book which was an (emotional) pleasure to listen to. Su Bristow’s writing is superb and captured my imagination from the start. It’s a book I won’t forget in a hurry.
Angus King has a lovely Scottish lilt which was perfect for the narration. He did a brilliant job, I’ll be looking out for more of his work.
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If you like stories about selkies, this is a book to read