Sea Hearts

Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts has been trailing me. It’s marked-up, Post-it noted, and dog-eared. I’ve scribbled notes about it. I’ve made a diagram.

And still, there’s something gorgeously unresolved about this book. I think it’s to do with love—and hair.

Sea Hearts (a YA book which has picked up a long list of awards including a shortlisting for this year’s Stella Prize), centres on a witch, Misskaella, who transforms seals into ‘sea wives’ for the men of remote Rollrock Island. The sea wives are beautiful, docile, and sad. On meeting them, the men (both single and married) are besotted.

Now my mark-ups are mostly undergraduate in impulse (a nice phrase, joining the plot dots), and my diagram is just a rough structural sketch (I wouldn’t set your watch by it). But I had some fun colour-coding the characters, using dark shades for older generations, and pastels for those who came after:

Sea Hearts sketch

While I was aware of the shifting point of view as I read, I didn’t see the shape of it until I sketched this. As the darker colours (past) move into the lighter shades (towards the present), we see not just the passing of time, but a kind of generational looping effect. Putting aside the opening sequence (which is told from Daniel Mallett’s point of view—in the light blue), the narrative is bracketed by relationships. Dark and light purple: the witch Misskaella and her apprentice. Dark and light orange: an island wife (Bet Winch) and her granddaughter. Dark and light blue: a father (Dominic Mallett) and his son. One or two shades back (if you’ll forgive me stretching the colour metaphor), there were sea wives on the island—by Misskaella’s time, they’re almost forgotten. The way the younger generation deals with their return leaves us wondering: can we learn from history repeating?

Of course, as Neil Gaiman said recently, this sort of the question is the whole point of reading (and writing, and daydreaming):

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over.

Which brings me back to hair.

Mine, as it happens, is going grey. Until my own hair started to change I wasn’t really aware that a lot of women dye theirs. And that’s fine, but I’m lazy and—when it comes to this sort of stuff—commitment phobic. On the one hand, perhaps I don’t want to appear older than I need to. On the other, I don’t care. Looks don’t matter, right?

But of course they do.

We recognise this truth in every line of Sea Hearts—the beautiful wives, the ugly witch, and the judgments we make about them. The sea wives have long, lustrous dark hair; the island women are frizzy red-heads. So in creating this distinction, perhaps Lanagan seeks to unpick the myth? Show us how the witch is actually a loving person and the sea wives only beautiful on the outside?

Well, no. The story reaches beyond the skin-deep, but it doesn’t judge. Bringing up the sea wives is Misskaella’s revenge against a world which rejects her: she’s always been too slow, too chubby, not pretty enough. She indulges in more than a little bit of schadenfreude as the sea wives’ beauty traps the islanders: the wives on land, the husbands to the role of loving jailer. So you can see why the Stella Prize citation calls Sea Hearts a ‘feminist fable about the inherent inequality of the traditional notion of a desirable marriage’. But you can also see why they chose the word ‘fable’: there are no easy judgements to make. There’s a right mess unfolding here, but it’s not moral condemnation we’re being served with. It’s a kind of truth. These are people in all their difficult, mean, loving glory.

The fact that Miskaella’s motivations push the story along is telling. In a book featuring svelte, ‘perfect’ women, the driving force is a grumpy witch who knits blankets out of seaweed. This character—whom Lanagan has said posed the central question of the narrative—understands love’s ambiguities. Misskaella shows us that love can be selfless, and wonderful; a projection of our own desires; an urge to possess; a sad acceptance of impermanence and difference. All at once.

I’d suggest the same kind of trickiness applies to physical beauty. On the one hand, we live in a world which judges women (harshly) on their looks. Which stinks. On the other, beauty has a kind of power, while it lasts.

And therein lies the kicker. Nothing lasts. Sea Hearts gives us a view of love, and beauty, across generations. We see youth, middle age, old age. Love and beauty have their time; they give, and they take away. In this one fictional place, wrapped up in the sea and a cast of great characters, it all makes a messy kind of sense. And as the grey hair gathers on my head, that’s the kind of sense I like best.

Leah De Forest has worked as a speech writer, journalist and editor. Her novel, The Borrowed River, was highly commended in this year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and shortlisted in the Varuna Publisher Program 2013. She enjoys reading books, and using the basic shapes function in PowerPoint.