Sealskin by Su Bristow

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Sealskin by Su Bristow

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Luke Marlowe
Reviewed by Luke Marlowe
Summary: Mystery, mistakes and magic abound on the windswept shores of Scotland in this moving tale of community and redemption
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 276 Date: February 2017
Publisher: Orenda
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1910633601

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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?

Selkies are mythical creatures, found in Irish, and Scottish folklore. Spending their days as seals in the sea, when they arrive on land they shed their skins – and resemble extremely attractive humans. If a man steals a female selkie's skin she becomes bound to him – forced to become his wife. This is the basic myth that has been around for hundreds of years – interestingly some think it was invented to explain the hereditary illnesses that some children suffered from, or that selkie sightings were simply local people spotting Finnish and Sami women wearing their sealskin clothes and travelling in their sealskin kayaks. This myth is the base around which Su Bristow has wrapped her tale – and it's a dark fairy tale of community, love and forgiveness. Donald is a troubled young man – he's not always likeable, but he's a character developed enough that the reader can root for him once they've recovered from his initial, explosive mistake – it's clear that he has good intentions, and a large part of the appeal of this book is in accompanying Donald on his journey – seeing him grow, learn and become a man is a rewarding and moving ride.

The selkie, Mairhi is also written remarkably well for a character that doesn't communicate verbally – Bristow describes her gestures and body language with an eloquence that immediately makes the reader familiar and fond of the character, which is rather remarkable. The fairy tale elements of the story are handled well here also – this is no light children's tale, but one that works exceptionally well for being grounded in the community that Bristow has created for her characters. Her Scotland is a wild and vivid one – despite reading this on my sofa in London, I was easily transported to the bracing coast of Scotland - the author's evocative descriptions sweeping the reader away. For a book that only features on a handful of characters, it's nonetheless rather sweeping in its scope – no character leaves this book without exploration, care and development – all affected by the magic and mystery that forms the basis of Donald and Mairhi's tale.

A powerful tale of love, learning and forgiveness, Sealskin is a bold and moving read that I was sad to put down – the memorable characters and moving plot make this a tale that lingers on in the mind – washing up on the shore of memory every now and then like the mysterious Selkie at the start of this tale. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.

For further reading I recommend The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements – historical fiction that reads like the best of fairy tales, and, much like Sealskin, puts exceptionally strong characters on a moving journey.

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