An architectural guide to Rome. Talking to Stephen Harby
Novel set in the Hebrides, plus author Q&A
27th February 2017
Sealskin by Su Bristow, novel set in the Hebrides.
Sealskin brilliantly re-works the North European myth of the selkie – a phantastic creature that is a seal until it sheds its skin to take on human form and character. This myth goes back a long way into the mists of time – and appears (in various manifestations) in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, Scandinavian, and Scottish folklore.
In Sealskin, Su Bristow takes one of the many stories and turns it into a compelling and beautifully written book. Firmly set in a fishing village in the Hebrides, it describes how Donald, one night when out crabbing, saw a group of seals swim to a small island close to shore, shed their skins, and begin to dance. They were all young and they were all female. His presence frightens them and they all, except one, run back to their skins and head into the ocean. Donald had hidden one of the skins to take home with him, and its owner cannot find it – she is in danger of being left behind. He clutches at her in an effort to save her from falling into the sea. She resists and, for reasons he does not entirely understand, he makes love to her. [We later learn that the dance they were performing was a mating ritual].
She struggles a little as he takes her back to his house – he cannot leave her where she is. His mother, Bridie, is sympathetic, but says that he has to marry her…that there will be a baby. The bulk of the book eloquently describes how the selkie (Maihri as she is to be known) adjusts to human form. She communicates not with words but with signs and gestures. She learns quickly, and is soon a real help to Bridie in her work as a herbalist, midwife, and general curer of ailments. Donald and Maihri marry and she bears him a son. Donald is in trepidation as the birth approaches, but the child is robustly human. She goes on to bear him a daughter as well. Donald grows in stature and a real love develops between them. Donald’s career as a fisherman flourishes.
Meanwhile the rest of the village knows nothing of who Maihri actually is. She is thought to be somewhat ‘simple’ and there is, indeed, some pity for Donald. Donald and his mother spin a story of how she became his girlfriend and then his wife. There are, though, instances of Maihri using ‘powers’ to both heal and calm – and also to repel aggression. There is some suspicion, and talk of witchcraft.
At one level Sealskin is a delightful re-working of the selkie myth. But it is also a great deal more than that… The fishing village is a close knit community wary of incomers, the suspicion with which they greet Maihri is typical of how they behave. Strangers, especially ones who are a little out of the ordinary, are not made entirely welcome. It is a story of how relationships develop and grow.
Sealskin is a quite delightful and extraordinarily well written book. The language Su Bristow uses is evocative of both the place and the situation. A highly recommended read.
Tony for the TripFiction team
Now over to our Q&A with Su:
TF: The North European myth of the selkie is a fascinating, if unusual, subject for you to write about in your first excursion into the world of fiction. What made you choose it?
SB: It’s one of those stories that has resonance. The unresolvable dilemmas it deals with keep teasing at you; they leave you unsatisfied, but in a good way! And I love the setting, too.
Actually, it’s not quite my first published fiction. There’s a short story, Troll Steps, in an anthology called Barcelona to Bihar (Earlyworks Press). And a monologue, Nkisi, about a shamanic healing journey in central Africa. There’s a performance of it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v58E0euZruk
TF: You show in your writing a great knowledge of the Hebrides, the people, their way of life. Does this all come from your research, or is it based on personal familiarity?
SB: A bit of both. I’m half Scottish, and my great-grandparents were crofters. Growing up in England, I always wanted to know more about that side of my family, and my grandmother – who lived nearby – presented Scotland as the end of the rainbow. But we never went to visit until I was thirteen, when we made a kind of pilgrimage (from my point of view). We went first to my Aunt Jean, who lived in a tenement flat in Dennistoun. It didn’t look much like the end of the rainbow to me! But then we went camping in the Highlands, and that was something else. And now I have friends with a house on Skye…
TF: The book has a very violent and very disturbing start. Is it your experience (as a therapist) that a relationship could survive, and indeed thrive, after such a dramatic beginning?
SB: That’s a very good question! It’s actually where I began working on Sealskin. Stripped of the romantic setting and the magic, we’re talking about rape and abduction here. How on earth could a loving relationship grow out of that?
Well, what I do know from working with thousands of people over the years is that we are capable of learning from our mistakes. If we weren’t, the human race would have been doomed long ago. And yes, I know rape is much more than a ‘mistake’. I don’t in the least intend to condone rape and violence in any form. But I am interested as a therapist in how people can grow beyond wounds and traumas, even very terrible ones. There is a stage in which it’s necessary to recognize our victimhood, so that we can reclaim our sense of self-worth. And we can also grow beyond that, develop other parts of our personalities, so that our wounds become part of the many threads in the cloth of which we’re woven.
So yes, to get back to your question! I have seen that relationships can survive, and even thrive, after dreadful traumas. Amazing things can happen. And Sealskin is the result of imagining how that might work.
TF: You write with a very fluent and beautiful style. Was this worked on and acquired or is it something with which you have always been blessed?
SB: I’ve always been an eclectic reader, so I think I’ve absorbed influences from all over the place. My early writings – which will remain unpublished! – were rather lyrical and overblown. Now, I think less is definitely more. And I read what I’ve written aloud, so I can hear how it scans and whether the rhythms work. It’s useful for picking up typos and repetitions too!
TF: Bridie, and then Maihri, treat many ailments in the community with herbal remedies. Is this part of standard medical practice in isolated island communities – or is it built into the story to reference your own experience as a medical herbalist?
SB: The WHO estimates that about 80% of the world still relies on herbal medicine. In Devon, where I live, farmers still actively use herbs for their animals, because vet medicine is expensive and you can’t do it yourself. Professional doctors are the exception rather than the norm, particularly in isolated and poor communities. And yes, Bridie’s experience reflects my own to some extent.
TF: Maihri is treated with a great deal of suspicion when she arrives in the village. Do you think she is singled out and treated differently from any other incomer into a close knit community?
SB: I don’t think so, until the incident with Aly Bain. Scottish folklore is full of stories in which the supernatural intrudes on the everyday world, and the dangers of that. And people tend to be wary of things they don’t understand. But I think her muteness, and her ‘simple’ state, would have been nothing unusual. In traditional communities, people can’t be tidied away if they’re a little different, so there would have been many with physical or mental disablities.
TF: How do you juggle your life as a medical herbalist and therapist with your life as a writer? Do you take sabbaticals in which you write?
SB: Ha ha! Actually, I did go away for short periods when I was writing Sealskin, and I might well have to do that again. Being a herbalist means you are ‘on call’ all the time, and people can get quite cross if you’re not there when they need you. Writing tends to happen in the spaces between other things, and if there aren’t enough spaces, I get stressed…
TF: Can you tell us what you are now working on? Is it another work of fiction?
SB: I’m working on a novel about fairies. Not Edwardian sprites, but the annoying ones that lead you off the path, give you wishes that don’t work properly, curdle the milk and frighten the cats. Interestingly, there’s a huge amount of material from Scotland, although they pop up all over Britain. It’s about glamour, and the magic and the danger of it. I’ve just watched La La Land, and if I can play along the edge of it the way that film does, I’ll be happy.
A big thank you to Su for answering our questions so brilliantly…