1. The voices were just too similar--they were all Margo Lanagan, through and through, and not individuals:
It just can't be that everyone on a single island talks with the exact same lyricism: "We walked up into the teeth of the wind," and "echoes of the cold noising sea." "the smell promised cleansing, and horizons, and sky, a flying-out from this, a floating-out..." Also, Lanagan has a tic of creating hyphenated phrases that are very poetic, but it doesn't lend itself to several voices: "funnel- and mast-shadows" Dominic: "fall-and-fall of hair" Daniel: "the gray rain-beginning," "Down slippy-slap we went, the wind skirling and twiddling around us."
Lanagan also has a very distinctive way of punctuating using commas between fragmentary descriptions, which wouldn't be a speech pattern that everyone on the island has...would it? (Maybe it would!) Here are a couple of examples:
Bet: "the cows were like islands, and we ran across the grassy sea between them, the stony."
Dominic: "I had heard and known about it all my life, that older world, that angrier."
Don't get me wrong: these writing "tics" are lovely...they're just so distinctive they made the voices all sound alike for me.
2. Misskaella's motivation.
The driving force behind this particular cycle of selkie-wives is implied to be the misery of the witch, Misskaela. But Missk's childhood misery is not terribly exceptional, and is mostly teasing about her being unmarriageable. (I grew up in a poor, urban area, and two little neighborhood boys I played with had cigarette burns on their arms--random punishments from their mother. That's exceptional abuse.) In a literary sense, I think the weakness in Missk's motivation is that her misery is so often told and not shown:
"All the world seemed intent on pointing out what I lacked."
"...what consolation was that, to watch the essence of things in its dance-and-streaming, when I must always return to the flatter like and the silenter, where I was an object not of reverence or wonder but of scorn?"
"I thought our family would stay this way forever, my sisters ignoring me except to tell me to straighten my posture and close my mouth and smile, for goodness' sake!, Mam lining up with them against me, and Dad striding among us with his eyes high and his chin stuck out, and Billy gone."
"I seemed to be everyone's but my own; I was like a broom or dishrag that anyone might pick up and use, and put aside without a thought when they were done with me."
"What was it about me, I could see them wondering, that I was not so ignorable as usual, not so repellent?"
(In other instances, Lanagan is a master of show-not-tell, which is why I don't give her a pass when it comes to the most important thing: motivating Missk's misery)
Even after she becomes the witch, Missk's voice often slips into telling:
[about her first baby] "I had never felt such feelings before."
"gazing at me as if unaware that I had ears or feelings."
"I was not above caring; I was not above longing for relief from this unending shame, from this relentless loneliness."
3. The science of the selkie transformation is not consistent.
a. When she takes off her crossed straps to make the man from the bull, the seals on the beach don't mob her. (Or are we supposed to believe the male calms the females, and they obey him? If so, it's not shown.)
b. The male is extremely coordinated (gross and fine motor skills, e.g. walking, and doesn't he carry her?, and pushing back the curls on her forehead), as are the female selkies, who can walk as soon as they're created. The first selkie immediately says, "What have you done to me?" and yet Daniel can't talk at all (could only manage cries, like a seal) or even raise his arms when he's transformed back into a human. Two men have to walk him up and down the deck of the ship to teach him to walk. Why the difference?
c. We're told that female halflings don't thrive, and that's another reason to return them to the sea (whether it's true or not), but we never see boys returned. Why is it that Missk's three boys didn't thrive?
4. What exactly are the sea-maid's personalities? I had a big problem reconciling the "placid" with the "utterly-competent."
Why do the women take a couple of generations to become overtly unhappy? The explanation we're told by Toddy is that young boys don't notice their mothers' misery, marriageable men only want the wife, and older men are in agreed-upon denial. But suicides don't begin to happen until much later in the cycle. Bet's mom says, "They'll go where they're pushed, these women, if there's no prospect of escape to animate them toward the sea." But then Neme gives Dominic the shell to fortify him to resist Kitty, and says, "I fear you will stay and marry her as you said, simply because you are there and in sight of her." Why is Neme trying to preserve her relationship with him? I think that Lanagan wants us to believe that the seals will happily mate with the human they've bonded with, and are loving mothers, but prefer to return to the sea. (The transient, recurring sexual relationship the bull-male presumably has with Missk is perhaps an example of how the creatures might prefer to live, if given a choice.)
5. The seal life Lanagan depicts through Daniel's five years in the sea is quite naturalist, rather than fantasy, which makes some real-life details feel false. For example, the mams "laughed lounging around us" when they see the boy seals play-fight with each other--that shows too much theory of the mind for female seals. As a weaned, non-dominant teenage male, wouldn't Daniel's life be sort of hell--being pushed to the outskirts of the group? Also, how long do wild seals typically live, and isn't five years a big chunk of it? When the boys become fishermen, there's a false moment where I saw the author's hand: seeing squirming, gaping fish in the net pains the boys. Daniel says, "expiring before my eyes for want of the larger system that sustained it." Honestly, he spent his childhood in a fishing village, spent five years as a seal that hunts fish, and now is a fisherman for a living--I guarantee you he has never once considered fish as needing the same freedom as humans and seals. Lanagan wanted us to see a metaphor there, but it was ham-handed to put it in Daniel's mouth.
6. The hidden birth of Missk's first baby felt contrived to me, too convenient. Mam never stops back in her own house long enough to discover it? She conveniently returns in the spring after the bab is gone? All the "reasons" (avoiding dying Dad, taking care of her grandchildren) seemed forced.
7. The gifts to young Missk are from the older generation, and I think we're meant to believe they're appeasing her, calming her (or are they from old men who are evilly grooming her?). We also see children, women, and men afraid of her. But she is never shown to have any other power than the ability to draw women out of seals, and knit soothing kelp blankets. Why are people so afraid of her?
8. Tiny errors:
a. Bet sees her dad's sea-maid and says it's the first time she has seen one "straight on and lamplit"...but I was pretty sure she saw Nase's girl in the lighted hall.
b. Dominic thinks upon the "nights" he had with Neme when he's confessing to Kitty, but there only appears to be one night.
c. Boy Daniel doesn't understand the comment the pink-cheeked woman tosses out (that the mothers are seals), but he knows enough to say to his mom that when he has a wife he will let her sing and speak seal in the house.
d. The lamps in the houses are all off when the boys and mams steal away, but Daniel talks about the "town's windows, its eyes" watching him. Perhaps he means the emptiness of the glass, but this scene happened in the dark and the houses wouldn't be that visible, no?
e. Daniel jumps back from his mam's alive skin at the waterfront, but his feet are bound tight in flippers (I'd believe falling over while trying to jump!).
f. Dominic says that Missk didn't have to help them recover their boys from the sea because she's rich. But having lots of possessions on an isolated island with a totally depressed economy (by that time) is not the same as having cash to buy food. Unless we're to presume that she sells her possessions in Cordlin.
And finally, this is not a complaint, but a wonder I had. Twice Missk talks about the pleasure in discovering that you're small in the universe and your life has no meaning. The wanna-be English major in me can't figure out why she's thinking these things in the context of the story. Here are the two times she says it:
"How lovely it was to be tiny and alone, to have quickened to living for a moment here, to be destined soon to blink out and let time wash away all mark and remembrance of me."
"What did my wants count for? Nothing and less than nothing. I watched the ceiling's swirling shadows, happy to matter so little."
There is unbridled joy in her expression, not resignation or relief. It's not the melancholia of a lonely person wishing to be gone. It's linked in the text with suddenly feeling beautiful (because of the seal man loving her), as if by seeing how small everyone is in the universe, she recognizes that she's their equal, and therefore equally beautiful. Is that what Lanagan meant? It's just interesting that being "piddling" actually gives her meaning, when so much of her satisfaction in life has seemed to be controlling this island, and exacting a subtle type of revenge.
As you can see, there's a lot to chew over in this novel, which is why Lanagan is such an intriguing writer.