In my ongoing search to discover that I am, in fact, the most original, innovative, trailblazing writer to ever grace the world with his existence, there will inevitably be bumps in the road. Such was my consternation upon discovering that other people had written stories about selkies. And one of these books was Selkie Girl by Laurie Brooks (and yes, she is related).
The first rival selkie story I ever read/reviewed was Seven Tears into the Sea by Terri Farley. It was … well, it was reassuring. It was absolutely nothing like what I wanted to write, but it did at least take the selkie mythos and adapt it pretty well to its intended purpose (though as I said in my review, it really missed an opportunity by not having an annoying love-triangle – this is the selkie mythos after all). It was also reassuring in that it was one potential threat to my story crossed off the list – however, that left me with Selkie Girl to contend with, and because it was not available at the library, since I live in New Zealand, I had to buy it from book depository. Gotta spend money to make money.
I have yet to make any money.
This had better be worth it.
And to be fair, it’s not a bad book. It’s deceptively short and very easy to read; the only downside was that it had what seemed like a similar premise to my own story, hence why I had to read it. As it turned out, a premise is nowhere near the same thing as an end result, and that’s for the best. The writing style simultaneously annoyed me and drew me in. It’s not how I’d ever like to write, but still a voice that I can respect for its sense of identity; having given the prose a Scottish accent in my head, I assume it’s meant to be read that way, because without the accent it feels very stilted.
This story veers from magical realism to outright fantasy and back again without warning, and it kind of irrated me. I’m totally down with selkies, because for the past almost-three years they have very much been my thing. But trows? It’s not that I have anything against aquatic troll/goblin things, but some kind of leadup would have been nice. Instead we get:
Sea Trows! Covered in seaweed hair, the stocky little men slide through the water, their stubby webbed hands and feet churning the sea at terrifying speed. Smaller than the trolls of Norse legend, these equally devious ceratures have human-like characteristics but are not human at all.
That is page 131, and it is the first time we’ve ever heard mention of “sea-trows”. As such they feel a contrivance in the story, there for no narrative purpose other than to provide a moment of tension in an otherwise pretty unnecessary chapter, and remind me of the random shit I end up having to cut out of my zero drafts (when I get around to editing them, which has happened a grand total of once). They feel like filler, in other words, and the fact that they come with their very own exposition-dump makes them really burdensome filler to boot. I could have done without them.
The selkie culture, however, is pretty neat. It’s very “that’s the way it is”, giving it a very fairytale kind of feel, and indeed the story that this reminded me of the most was not my own or even Seven Tears, but The Little Mermaid – the Hans Christian-Andersen original. But more on that later.
Selkie culture reminded me of, of all things, a Tumblr fandom – not because selkies are all human fangirls or anything (also there are male selkies), but because they take their stories really fucking seriously. Their culture revolves around storytelling, mapping narratives onto real-life, and it is as frustrating and seductive as it sounds. Life is not a story, as I have said time and again (and not just me either), but this story is definitely a story, and because of that and the somewhat self-aware fairytale framing the device works. There is indeed a prophecy in this book, and the frustration that our protagonist Elin Jean endures trying to work out what the fuck it is was written really well – again, not such a fan of the style, but it worked very well for this aspect of it.
The other part it worked well for was Elin Jean’s angst, and that’s the cue to draw parallels with The Little Mermaid.
If you’ve ever read that “children’s classic”, you will know that it is not a story you ever, ever fucking read to your kids.
This is not some kind of prudish stance on my behalf; I’m all for telling kids upsetting stories, so long as there’s a point to it beyond “yeah let’s scare the shit out of them”. The Little Mermaid has no point to it whatsoever unless you want to make your kids depressed, specifically to teach them that having romantic/sexual feelings for somebody will lead to a lifetime of utter misery and injustice, particularly if they’re girls. I think we could do with a lot less of that particular kind of sexist bullshit in the world.
But that brand of feminine suffering, the powerless prisoner of fate with no true friend in the world – that’s the carryover from Mermaid to Selkie Girl. It is the literary trend that I sniffed out in that one uni paper where I was expected to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and the reason that I very purposefully did not read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, because reading a story with no aim in mind other than to inflict suffering is not something that I relish. I just don’t see how it makes anything better. I absolutely understand and agree that drawing attention to injustice requires representing it faithfully so that people know what’s at stake; where I draw the line is where it devolves into angst-porn.
Selkie Girl hovers precariously on the edge of that precipice for the first third of the story, where Elin Jean is nicknamed “Selkie Girl” by the cruel villagers and her webbed hands and isolated family mark her out as a freak. She discovers that her mither (mother) (hence the Scottish reading accent) is a selkie whose pelt was stolen by her fither (pet goat) (I’m kidding but this drove me fucking insane), and the whole family situation is really messed-up and I did appreciate how messed-up it was. I can certainly respect some well-written angst, especially when it stretches beyond the typical myopic formulation and encompasses an entire cast of characters, as it does here. But it was because it was so well-executed that it was hard to read, because I experienced it so vividly that I found it hard to take seriously in places. It’s hard to say whether it’s well-written or drama for drama’s sake, and what makes that distinction harder for me to make is the fact that this story of the martyred heroine is very much a tale as old as time.
YES I KNOW THAT’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST LEAVE ME ALONE IT’S 1:40 a.m.
A lot of stuff in this story makes little to no real-world sense, and operates instead on the logic of melodrama: if it hurts, do it harder. But it does resonate with the selkie mythos, and it also intersects very effectively with the fairytale vibe. My favourite part of the story is definitely Elin Jean after she’s become a selkie (though her human hands are somehow attached to her flippers, making her doubly a freak), trying to figure out what the fuck the prophecy is and being really frustrated that nobody will help her try to solve the problem (and her one selkie pal who is assigned to her to guide her through her “solus”, which is basically a selkie coming-of-age ritual, is equally clueless). It was very well-written, and was incredibly teen-angsty. If that’s your thing, then you’ll have a good time here – and if it’s not, well, like I said, this book is deceptively short.
I did get a bit irritated when she starts to eat seaweed instead of fish because she hates killing living things (what a loser), to the point where she even feels guilty about eating seaweed; I definitely sense shades of PETA in this book, but not necessarily in a bad way – I do have to agree that seal-clubbing is pretty barbaric, and if this book was trying to make an argument for that, well, there’s a scene where a bunch of literally newborn seal pups are clubbed to death.
And what makes it really infuriating is that this is all excused as being part of Elin Jean’s journey of self-discovery – because if she had been helped along the way she never would have discovered her true purpose blah blah blah who cares if the baby selkies might have y’know lived if she’d been given a few extra pointers but whatever I mean Dumbledore did heaps of horrible manipulative shit and look how awesome he is OH WAIT NO HE’S NOT HE’S AN ASSHOLE –
It’s story-logic, not logic-logic; it’s the same logic that justified Dumbledore leaving Harry, Ron and Hermione to figure out the whole Philosopher’s Stone thing on their own, and if that bothers you then get out while you can. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief/outrage, then for what it is, Selkie Girl is really a pretty good read.
And best of all: it’s still nothing like what I want to do.
It does almost steal a couple of bits of scenery from my story, but I guess when it comes to rugged coastal regions in semi-Gothic story settings there’s only so much variety in the collective cultural unconscious. And the whole half-selkie half-human thing was something I was sure would be unique to my story, even though it’s not unique at all in selkie lore. But it was executed entirely differently to what I’ve got planned (insofar as I have anything planned), and explored options that I wasn’t at all interested in, allowing me to see the opportunities I could have taken without having to actually take them, and reassuring me that, no, I never really wanted to.
Such as the love interest. Like Seven Tears, this book neglects to put in a love-triangle, and unlike Seven Tears I actually would have liked a love-triangle in this one, because it would have made sense. But also unlike Seven Tears, I didn’t feel like the story was missing any opportunities by omitting that element, although the argument could certainly be made.
No, instead we have Tam, a gypsy boy who is another social outcast like Elin, and who has typical problematic romantic-lead issues like forcibly kissing our heroine and just being kind of a dick. I know he’s meant to be dysfunctional and shit, and it does work with that angle, but again, it happens so often that I really would like to see something else. Which is why there is no romantic angle in Tallulah, and oh god if I have to write one in to get it published I’m going to flip a table.
Or just self-publish. I guess I could do that.
So that’s another wiping of the brow and sighing of relief for me; I think there’s another selkie book – a series of them – that I could check out, but I’m pretty sure they’re also romance novels through and through, and because of that I am definitely safe. I do think I would recommend this book if you’re in a certain mood; if you are feeling a bit masochistic and really need to get your angsty-teenage-girl-saved-by-the-power-of-heteromantic-love on, look no further than Selkie Girl. And all kidding aside, this book does what it does well.
But again, the best part for me is that it does not do what I want to do very well, leaving me to do it instead. My search continues.