Every so often, you come across a book that you just know is going to test your abilities as a reviewer. Strangely, such books are often published by Orenda Books – I can remember a similar issue with both books from Louise Beech, and my struggle to find the right words for Amanda Jennings’ In Her Wake haunts me still (but “read it” usually works pretty well…). I’ve been looking forward to reading Sealskin by Su Bristow since I first heard about it – I think from Cathie Hartigan, after it won the Exeter Novel Prize 2013. And isn’t it just wonderful when a novel you’ve been eagerly anticipating for so long not only lives up to your expectations, but exceeds them in so many ways? Already available for kindle, this book is published in paperback on 15th February – and it’s simply stunning…
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. For fans of Angela Carter, Eowyn Ivey, Alice Hoffmann and Geraldine Brooks.
I’ll be honest, myth and magic sometimes isn’t my favourite thing – some of those “for fans of…” comparisons didn’t excite me as much as they maybe should have. But don’t – whatever you do – let them put you off. This is a story based on myth, perhaps one quite familiar to many, but I adored this book for its insights into the human condition, not for its mysticism. Although both aspects are beautifully and perfectly balanced – the outsider brought in from the cold, “healed” by his association with the magical Mhairi with her powers beyond human comprehension, but also mended by the deepest of love in its many manifestations.
The story is wonderful. Can I say “mesmerising”? It’s a word I know I overuse, but I really can’t think of a more appropriate one. The setting is vividly drawn and evocative, the writing lyrical and simply gorgeous – this is a book I could have read in hours, but lingered over for days to savour ever drop of emotion, every detail laden description, every plunge into the depths of emotion that held me spellbound. All the characters in this book – every one of them flawed and human, their relationships complex – has a place deep in your heart, real people caught up in a story that takes your breath away.
I’ve retold the story to others – as you do, when asked “what are you reading?” – but I can’t begin to describe how deeply this wonderful book made me feel. At its conclusion, I cried quite helplessly. When you’re grappling for the right words, I think it’s sometimes better to say “enough”. Please, just read it – this book was magnificent, and will be one of the most passionate and memorable you’ll read this year.
My thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for my advance reading e-copy. I wasn’t able to sign up for the blog tour because of my personal commitments, but do follow the stops on the tour – I’m sure so many others will feel just as I did.
Meet 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 with psychotherapist, 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. Her forthcoming novel, Sealskin, is set in the Hebrides, and it’s a reworking of the Scottish legend of the selkies, or seals who can turn into people. It won the Exeter Novel Prize 2013. Her writing has been described as ‘magical realism; Angela Carter meets Eowyn Ivey’.