Monday, March 13, 2017

Sealskin - Su Bristow

There are a few Selkie myths around, but I think the best known one will be some version of the story of the fisherman who finds himself watching as a group of seals come ashore, shed their skins, and in the form of beautiful young women start to dance. He steals the skin of one of them so she cannot return to the sea with her sisters, takes her home, marries her, and for a while all seems well. There are children, and a settled life - then one day her young son finds her lost skin and with that she's gone.

I couldn't say if it was because this was the first Selkie story I really remember, or if it's because of the ambiguous ending, but it's always been my favourite. I guess it's Su Bristow's favourite too because it's the one she's chosen to tell in Sealskin, taking those bare bones and turning them into something magical.

Donald, the fisherman who's about to catch more than he bargained for, is an awkward outsider in his own community. Out checking his creels he the seal maidens dancing, on the spur of the moment he hides one of the skins, and then rapes it's owner before taking her home to his mother. Despite his prevarications she knows exactly what he's done and makes it clear what the consequences will be.

Donald himself is appalled by both his actions and their implications, and this is where Bristow goes to town. Why is Donald's mother so determined to take the Selkie into her family, how will the close knit community accept this particularly strange stranger, and what if they don't? What are the implications of the truth being revealed? Can Donald find any kind of forgiveness for what he's done either from himself, or from the woman he's taken?

Meanwhile it's not just Mairhi (the seal girl) who's been changed, it's Donald too as he starts to take responsibility for what he's done. One reason the original story has stuck with me is that because the Selkie leaves her children behind it doesn't feel like an entirely happy ending when she returns to the sea, even though I'm always glad for her that she can no back. This time I sort of want her to stay even though I know she won't (which is new, I've never liked the fisherman before).

I don't want to give any more of the details away, but this book deserves the praise that's been heaped on it, not least because Bristow keeps all the uncomfortable ambiguity of the original fairy tale. I saw it recommended when it was 99p for a kindle version (I see a paperback in my future) so took a chance on it, and am glad I did.


  1. I had not heard of this story before but will now have to look into it. Thank you, I do like to learn of interesting books.

  2. It's a lovely expansion of a fairy tale I've always loved, so I really enjoyed it and all the things she did with it. Well worth looking out for.