Review: “Sealskin” by Su Bristow


Paperback: 276 pages

Publisher: Orenda Books

Release Date: 1st May 2017




I picked up this book after a relentless Twitter campaign by Orenda Books and their affiliated bloggers and I’m very pleased I did. It’s a beautifully written piece of magic realism that captures both the timeless quality of the selkie legends and the claustrophobia of small island living.

The Blurb: 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—evokes 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, 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.

I was wondering when this book arrived if it could live up to the rapturous quotations on the back cover – “exquisite” gushed Louise Beech, “haunting… and evocative” raved Off-The-Shelf Books, and they weren’t alone – the back cover of this novel is jammed with effusive praise for the dreamlike prose and skilful narrative. I wasn’t disappointed. I even recommended it to my sister who is a notoriously picky former literature student that I never dare push books towards.

The story follows a young fisherman called Donald Macfarlane who uses violent means to take possession of a young selkie girl who he sees dancing on the beach in the moonlight. So far, so traditional…

Bristow moves beyond the Scots and Norse selkie legends though and unfolds a tale of community and coming-of-age that sees Donald live with the consequences of his actions and it is this that makes the story so compelling. You’d think that you would struggle to empathise with a character who starts out so unsympathetically as Donald. He’s weak and selfish and whilst he struggles to find his place in the practical and often harsh community he lives in, this is not enough to redeem him in the reader’s eyes at the start of the book. It is testament to Bristow’s skill as a storyteller that you can be slowly won round as Donald seeks to make amends for his initial actions.

The language and imagery is gorgeous throughout the novel and it is easy to get swept away. I read the whole thing in two sittings – I was desperate to see the story unfold, yet it never felt rushed. That’s the real magic of it.

A beautiful book that really did live up to its hype.



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