4.5 stars”Was she beautiful, the sea-maid? Fair strange, Doris had said, and I thought that was a fine assessment. Fair strange. I think that’s a fine assessment of Sea Hearts too: beautiful in, or for, its unusualness.It’s proving extremely difficult to review Sea Hearts (titled The Brides of Rollrock Island in the US) in isolation, and not hold it up against Lanagan’s previous novel, Tender Morsels. Though I read the latter earlier this year, I still haven’t been able to wrangle my thoughts into review form, beyond being able to say that it’s one of the most powerful, disturbing and peculiar books I’ve ever read. (And I do mean that in a good way). So I was apprehensive, even nervous, going into Sea Hearts.Now having read them both, I can definitely say that there are some similarities between the novels, as they both have Lanagan’s singularly complex and artistic use of language, atmosphere, emotion, and thematic depth. However, while Tender Morsels is almost relentlessly unsettling, I believe Sea Hearts, without diluting the power of Lanagan’s writing, is the more accessible book.And the writing is exquisite. Besides the rich, lyrical prose that sets Lanagan apart as a storyteller, it’s also incredibly atmospheric. Rollrock Island and its small, insular community of Potshead are exceptionally well-realised. Lanagan has created a setting that feels simultaneously familiar and foreign, a glimpse of our own past slightly tilted on its axis into something strange and not quite of our world. Through dialogue and characterisation, the world of Rollrock slips its moorings in reality and occupies a realm of existence just beyond our own, all the more so as the story of the selkies and sea-witches are woven into its history.Sea Hearts is structured around seven narrators, each taking up a layer of the story until it comes full circle. At first, the framework seems strange and the shifts in perspective and time feel abrupt, incomplete. Then a synergy in the voices begins to emerge, drawing towards a central, cohesive thread, and it becomes clear just how complex and dark a story Lanagan is weaving.On the surface, Sea Hearts is about a sea-witch with the ability to draw forth a woman from a seal, who begins trading in brides for the men of Rollrock Island. But that synopsis barely scratches the surface of what this novel is about. This is a deeply insightful story about the consequences of revenge exacted upon a community, and of the sorrow bought with unchecked desire. The far reaching effects of rejection, fear and loss are adroitly explored through the characters, whom Lanagan imbues with sympathy despite their many actions to the contrary. This is most evident in Misskaella, a character flawed and reprehensible, yet deeply human in her story of growth from a spurned child and downtrodden young woman, to a calculating and feared crone. Some of Lanagan’s most beautiful writing is tied up in Misskaella’s character arc, and the consequences that her personal journey wreaks upon the island. Similarly, there’s a scene that details a conversation between Daniel Mallett and his mother, too long to quote here, so poignant and moving for the way it gets straight to the heart of the novel - to the private burdens of sorrow and guilt that the island must atone for cumulatively.Of course, much like Tender Morsels, the style and subject of Sea Hearts won’t be for everyone, and I’d even venture to say that it’s an acquired taste. The novel can feel dense at times, enigmatic to the point of frustration. Lanagan compels her readers to unusual, dark places and does not always deliver explanations, rather requiring readers to draw their own. She does not offer detailed rationalisations for her worldbuilding choices, and there are times when I felt out of my depth in the setting. However, the end result is extraordinary and rewarding.Tender Morsels in a feminist context has been the subject of much discussion, both far more in depth and more articulately than I could even begin to attempt, but I think it’s worth touching on the subject as it pertains to Sea Hearts. I do think that Lanagan’s novels have many intelligent things to say about the position of women in society. Sea Hearts less stridently than Tender Morsels, but still in an insightful and thought-provoking manner. Throughout Sea Hearts, traditional gender roles are very much in evidence, and I think that Lanagan subtly challenges these as the plot unfolds. The female characters typically occupy narrowly defined places in their society, yet both the “red wives” and the sea wives have agency in contesting these. Most obvious is the “red wives” in their decision to leave the island in protest against the summoning of the sea wives. And while it’s arguable that the sea wives themselves are conjured as “possessions” of the men, living under their dominance and as manifestations of the men’s sexual desire and objectification, they too have purpose and desire outside being “wives”. Their ties to their home, and the action this causes them to take, clearly demonstrate that their will extends beyond the narrow confines of Potshead’s social norms and expectations, and that attempting a forced assimilation only damages the tightly knit community. From Miskaella, Bet Winch’s mother, the sea wives, Lory Severner to Trudle Callisher, the central female characters of Sea Hearts display different aspects of strength and independence, asserting themselves beyond the rigid and limited views of them held by the other characters, particularly the men.Sea Hearts is an unusual novel, beautiful in its sadness and haunting closure. It works well as a crossover and I’d recommend it to anyone drawn to artful storytelling and literary fiction. As for the covers and titles, I like them all, though I admit a bias for the Australian versions of both. I like the title Sea Hearts (which is also the title of the original novella from which the novel grew), for its duality – it works on both a literal and symbolic level and is therefore open to a variety of interpretations. Regarding the covers, anyone who’s had a glance at my tumblr knows how I feel about moody pictures involving water (spoiler: I like them), however I think the Australian cover is more evocative of the sea wives as they’re described. And I think it’s just gorgeous in general.Starting this tonight.. *flails and runs to catch up with Leanne*Bumping this up the TBR to read with Leanne next week..