I seem, in the past year or so, to have read a goodly number of YA novels by Australian authors. Simmone Howell, Markus Zusak, Margo Lanagan, Melina Marchetta, Craig Silvey, Gabrielle Williams - I'm sure I'm forgetting some, too. With the exception of Silvey's Jasper Jones, they've all been books I've really enjoyed. Some, like Marchetta's Jellicoe Road and Zusak's I am the Messenger, became instant classics, books that just knocked my socks off, made me cry, made me think, dazzled my brain. I'm beginning to suspect that Australians do some rather excellent YA fiction, and I'm considering becoming a full-fledged Fan of Australian YA. [note: I'm not sure what this will constitute, other than me saying "I'm a fan of Australian YA," and continuing to seek them out from the sadly understocked libraries. I am fairly certain there is no badge, certificate, or secret handshake that will mark me out as a member of an elite group of Australian YA fans]
I read Lanagan's Tender Morsels in February, and was awestruck. It was an amazing book, so smart and original and otherworldly and grim. I'm still trying to sort out how exactly I feel and think about it (beyond simply thinking: WOW!!!!!). The conclusion thumped the wind right out of me; there's a very grotesque and troubling event, and then a heartbreaking one in very quick succession, and then the book ends. But there's also fabulous writing, complex plotting, unusual and intriguing characters; there's the wonderful, ingenious issue of what someone's personal heaven would look like. There's a banquet of food for thought in Tender Morsels, and I'm definitely still working through it all.
Right after I read it, my Australian online acquaintance (via the listserv) and facebook friend posted about going to the book launch of Lanagan's newest title, Sea Hearts. I looked the book up online, decided immediately that I NEEDED to read it, and soon, and then mentioned how envious I was that she got to attend the launch. Then I checked online again and realized the book won't be available in the US (and under a different title; I hate when they do that) until the fall. Autumn. Six months and more away. I mentioned my dismay - I really felt crushed, because I had just read Lanagan's book, and Maggie Stiefvater's Scorpio Races, and I was absolutely primed for another wonderful book set on an isolated island.
Fast forward a few weeks. I'm shuffling around in a misery of bronchitis made worse by taking medication that made me seriously dizzy and woozy. But look! A package at my mailbox! I retrieved it (slowly; I have to go down a series of steep wooden steps to get to the mailbox; I have fallen down those stairs on numerous, painful occasions) and saw Australian postage and a customs declaration.
I opened it up, and like in a movie, a bright light seemed to emanate from within the packaging - because there, in all its thick shiny glory, was Sea Hearts. And a note written on a very cool Australian notecard. Because I am a huge nerd about books, and just that kind of person, I actually hugged the book to myself when I realized what it was. I flipped it open and saw - oh my gods! - an inscription, to me, from Margo Lanagan "so she won't have to wait."
Maybe it speaks to some kind of profound naivete, or an entanglement with celebrity culture, or something equally un-boastworthy, but I am still at a stage of life when I am thrilled (in every sense of the word) at signed books. And personalized inscriptions in a signed book? Over the moon! I don't have many such books, and the few I do have are treated with great reverence and love.
I had to wait a bit to read it, though; between being sick, and having a stack of grading, and several books to read for teaching, I simply didn't have time and energy to read sea hearts.
But finally! At long last! I have read it.
And again - just knocked out by its amazingness. Lanagan is such a skillful and evocative writer; I got thoroughly caught up in each of the different narrators' sections. I found myself empathizing with all of them, even when they were at odds with each other. The premise of the book - that this island has on it a witch who can release the human girls from within seals - is fantastic. The seals are semi-selkies, I suppose, but they also work a bit differently. They are far more seal than human girl; the witch, with the wonderful, witchy name Misskaella, sees what she variously describes as seeds, bits of light, particles within each seal that she can manipulate to create the human girl. And she does this, for a variety of complex reasons, for all the men of the island who ask for a sea-girl. Because, like mermaids, the sea-girls are instantly bewitching to the men who behold them. It's an unintentional bewitching, simply an aspect of their natures once they are made human, but it's deep and effective just the same. And because of this bewitching quality, and because they are all beautiful with silky black hair, all of the men of the island seek out Misskaella to get them a sea-girl for a wife (even the men who already have wives and children).
The novel moves through a series of narrators over time, so we see, ultimately, Misskaella from her very earliest years of life and witchery, to the very end of her life. We see the generations of people on the island; we see how, before too very long, there are no human women left except the witch. Nothing but sea-brides, their island-man husbands, and the children they have - all sons, a sinister detail which is explained late in the novel.
We see the situation from the inside - from the bewitched men, from the children, from the witch, from the displaced island women, from true outsiders - but never from any of the sea-girls themselves.
As in Tender Morsels, there is a deep, and deeply felt, vein of feminism running through this book. It's knotty and gnarled and complicated, but it is there and it - as the narrative grows and branches and builds - becomes more and more pressing and prominent. One of the captivating things about these sea-brides, we are told, is that they are "born" bewildered, compliant, and bond instantly with the first human they see. The sea-girls are fully-grown women, and they are clearly adults, but they also have a childlike dependence on and commitment to the men who have purchased their "release" from the seals. They are every straight man's fantasy - the beautiful, beautiful woman who is utterly devoted and dependent and compliant, who is unencumbered with friends or family or interests or a life outside of the life made for them by their husbands and children. And gracious but they have a lot of children....
This strange island community of seals, and sea-brides, and children who are part-seal deep inside, and men who are quite literally entranced by their wives, is utterly compelling and fantastic (in every sense of that word). It's magic, but not magical; there is a very sharp edge to the world of this novel, and to the narrative that unfolds. I couldn't put the book down, once I really started reading; I was almost late to teaching because I couldn't tear myself away from one of the narrators' stories. I often get caught up in what I'm reading, and often put books down with reluctance, but truly being unable to break away from the narrative? That happens far less frequently, and it's a good gauge of how convincing and absorbing and emotionally engaging a text is.
Sea Hearts is all of that and more; it presents a world, a vision of magic and gender and generational progress, that is unique; I have never encountered anything quite like it. There are many threads being woven in the narrative, some more personal, some more political, some more literary, and so there are many points of access to the text. But at the novel's close, Lanagan adds a final bit, she gives another turn of the screw (so to speak, if you're Henry James) that literally took my breath away. I inhaled, and forgot to exhale as I stared at the last empty page of the book. When I started breathing again, when my heart restarted in a regular pattern, it still took awhile for me to be able to read the acknowledgements and about-the-author pages.
These are the signs of a good book, by a good writer - and delivered to me by a good friend (one I've never met).
Sea Hearts will turn up in the United States as The Brides of Rollrock Island in the fall - September 11, in fact, according to amazon.
I am sure that, by then, I will have read it at least once more.