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.
Sealskin by Su Bristow is published in paperback by Orenda Books on 15 Febuary 2017 and is the author's debut novel.
There are times when you hear about a book that is due to be published and little tingle runs down the spine. Despite the talk about 'magic' and 'legend', which, if I'm honest, does not usually make me feel that excited, there was something about the blurb for Sealskin that shouted to me.
I heard the author speak about her story at an event hosted by the publisher, Orenda, last year and I knew that if her writing was as warm and genuine as her voice, then Sealskin was going to be a book for me.
When my copy arrived, I intended to glance through it, to get a feel of the style and then put it aside and read it nearer to publication date. That was impossible! Within just a few chapters I was hooked, and putting it to one side was not going to happen. Last week I read through Sealskin again, in preparation for my review and once more I found myself completely and utterly absorbed.
Donald is a lonely man, living on the harsh west coast of Scotland and coping with afflictions that make him feel like less than a man. Being a man in this close-knit, sturdy community is very important. Being able to go out to sea on the boats and hold your own is the mark of masculinity and strength and Donald feels like a failure. He spends his days avoiding the fishermen, he collects the herbs that his mother uses in her medicines, he is one of a kind.
When Donald spots a group of figures on the shoreline, he knows that they are Selkies. Selkies live as seals in the sea but shed their skins to be human when on land. Donald makes a decision that will change his life, and that of the Selkie who will become known as Mairhi.
Su Bristow gently, carefully and beautifully unwraps her story of Mairhi and Donald and the incredible impact their relationship has on the community. With themes of hatred, prejudice, some violence and adapting to change, the author sweeps up the reader and transports them to the furthest reaches of Scotland. The setting is elegantly described, the landscape and the inhabitants are alluring and quite bewitching.
Whilst Mairhi herself does not speak, she is an extraordinary character whose presence leads the whole story, she is mysterious, vulnerable, manipulated, yet there is a calm and beauty about her that is bewitching.
There are a few publishers who take a chance on an author, who recognise pure talent and are prepared to take a chance and bring these stories to the reader. Orenda Books is one of those publishers. With an emphasis on crime and literary fiction, and an eye for knowing what a reader wants, even before the reader knows it, their list continues to grow.
Sealskin is superbly subtle set amongst vividly described landscape and populated by colourful and intriguing characters. This is a highly-assured, stylish and absorbing debut.
My thanks to the publisher who sent my copy for review.
Su Bristow is a consultant medical herbalist by day. She's the author of two books on herbal medicine: The Herbal Medicine Chest and The Herb Handbook; and two on relationship skills: The Courage to Love and Falling in Love, Staying in Love, co-written with psychotherapist, Malcolm Stern.
Her published fiction includes 'Troll Steps' (in the anthology, Barcelona to Bihar), and 'Changes' which came second in the 2010 Creative Writing Matters flash fiction competition.
Sealskin is set in the Hebrides, and it's a reworking of the Scottish and Nordic legend of the selkies, or seals who can turn into people.
It won the Exeter Novel Prize 2013.
Her writinghas been described as 'magical realism; Angela Carter meets Eowyn Ivey'.
Find out more at www.subristow.co.uk
Follow Su on Twitter @SuBristow