Published by Orenda Books
ebook : 20 December 2016 | Paperback 15 February 2017
approx 276 pages
It’s a pleasure to be taking part in the blog tour for Sealskin by Su Bristow. Firstly I have a guest post from Su and my review follows.
by Su Bristow
You might be interested to hear a bit more about the names in Sealskin. Donald is simple enough; half the men on the Highland side of my family seem to have been called Donald. The other half, including my own grandfather, were called John. It’s pretty normal in the Highlands and Islands for several children in the same class to have the same name, but of course, in fiction, that makes it hard to tell people apart. I ended up giving different names to all the secondary characters, except for Hugh’s two crewmen, who were both called James, although James Rennie is known by his surname.
And talking of surnames, you tend to find a lot of Macfarlanes or McLeods in the same community, too. I’ve put in a bit of variation so that the minor characters are more distinctive. The only person without a surname is Father Finian, who is also the only ‘outsider’ apart from Mairhi herself. I imagined him as coming from Ireland, perhaps.
I chose ‘Mairhi’ because it reminded me of the Latin ‘mare’ – pronounced ‘mar-ay’ – , which means ‘sea’. In fact, the name is more usually spelt ‘Mhairi’, which in Gaelic would be pronounced ‘Vari’, but the first Mairhi I knew was a girl I was at school with in England, (if you’re reading this, Mairhi Russell, thank you for that!) so I went with that spelling. It’s a variation of ‘Mary’, so there’s the association with purity too.
Children are very often named after their parents or grandparents, so that names travel down the generations. By giving the name of her own dead daughter to Mairhi, Bridie is making her part of the family; and perhaps she is also bestowing upon her some of her own hopes and dreams for her girl-child, which were never fulfilled. In the same way, when Donald gives his father’s name to his new-born son, he is ensuring the continuity into the future of his father’s spirit, and those of all his ancestors who bore that name.
On the other hand, Sorcha is a pure flight of fantasy! It’s pronounced ‘Sorsha’, like the Irish version ‘Saoirse’, and it means ‘freedom’. The story doesn’t tell us how this child of the sea and the land grew up, but it’s a statement of hope that somehow, the loving union that produced her might help to heal the wounds of the past.
Bridie is a shortened version of Bridget, found in both Ireland and Scotland. But it’s also the Celtic goddess Brigid, who presides over healing and childbirth, the fire of hearth and forge, poetry and unity. She taught humans how to use the healing properties of herbs, and as a herbalist myself, she’s definitely my patron. The goddess was Christianised into Saint Bride or Bridget, protector of women and children. In one tradition of Celtic Christianity, she was said to have been midwife to the Virgin Mary.
Her feast day is Imbolc or Candlemas on 2nd February, the time when the first fragile signs of spring begin to appear. It’s a festival of hope in the middle of winter, a time of tenderness when new babies and new projects can be gently midwifed into the world. So it feels particularly appropriate that Sealskin is being released in mid-February.
About the book:
What happens when magic collides with reality?Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous …and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives – not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?Based on the legend of the selkies – seals who can transform into people – Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Exeter Novel Prize-winner Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set. And it is, quite simply, unforgettable.
The Selkie legend was completely new to me; I’m not normally one for stories featuring the mystical or magical – it has to be a very special story to make me put my cynicism aside. However discovering here the mythical story of the Selkies – seals who shed their skin when on land and turned into human form before returning to their skins and to the sea made for such a captivating and engrossing story I could entirely believe this was possible and that is solely down to the talent of the author.
I have to admit to being rather unsettled by the story at the start. I was unable to determine the era but assumed it to be set in the past. Donald’s actions made for uncomfortable reading but as the story progressed, I, and I would assume Mairhi too, forgave him as the story is so much more than one momentary act of madness.
Sue Bristow writes beautifully and her prose is a pleasure to read. I was totally enthralled by the story of this close knit community on the Scottish coast. So many damaged and flawed characters and deep held prejudices, intertwined with kindness and compassion. Even though she doesn’t speak, Mairhi communicates so much through just a look and her actions. The villagers distrust of her was quite understandable however even without any words, her natural charm and calm demeanour work their magic.
One of the highlights of the book for me was seeing the effect that Mairhi had on Donald. When the story began, he was a naive loner; a dehabilitating skin condition making him feel self-conscious and different and hindering his work as a fisherman. The croft he shares with his mother Bridie is his sanctuary. Bullied by some and scorned by others he avoided other people as much as possible however Mairhi’s magical touch was far reaching and life changing.
I don’t want to go into intricate detail of the story because you really do need to discover it for yourself. My review can’t possibly do this book justice. I loved it for the wonderful writing and captivating storytelling. Although no exact location is given (it is actually set in the Hebrides), there is a wonderful sense of place; the descriptions of the clifftop walks, the harbour are so vivid – all of which allowed me to easily visualise the scene in my head. Community is very important here too. People may have disagreements with each other but when help is needed, grievances are put aside and they come together.
When I finished reading, I tweeted that I had found my first Top 10 Read of 2017. Some days later, I still feel the same and the story is still with me – this is definitely a book you should put on your reading lists.
My thanks to Karen of Orenda Books for the paperback copy to 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’.