Mythology has given the world and popular culture a seemingly endless supply of exciting and enticing creatures from which to draw: Vampires, of course, and werewolves; ghosts, grim reapers, dragons, and even elves; unicorns, mermaids, ogres, and sirens. And let’s not forget zombies… Who could forget zombies?
Selkies might seem like an odd choice to base a book on. (Or a movie, for that matter: The animated film Song of the Sea was released to theatres just seven short months ago.) For the uninitiated, a selkie is a creature that turns from a human to, well, a seal. A big grey seal. And then it goes into the water and lives on a secret island. They are prevalent in Irish and Scottish folklore.
So, basically, not sexy.
Shelley Moore Thomas has nonetheless chosen to base her latest novel on these, frankly, bizarre animal-people, and the results are wonderful, and thankfully have more in common with the films of Ken Loach than the Twilight saga.
The narrative concerns a struggling family –a father who works fixing boats, and three daughters, two of whom take a job in town to help raise some extra money for the brood– whose mother has left without any word of explanation to the kids. Circumstantial evidence points to their mother being a selkie, and having returned to the sea as selkies do. And the talk around their small town seems to suggest that is the case. The girls make it their mission to track their mother down, and when they think they’ve found her they pursue her, throwing caution to the wind.
Thomas is a fine writer, and her characters –particularly the kids– are inviting and comfortable, and the true magic of Secrets of Selkie Bay is in its depiction of how people deal with grief, and how we look for anything to help us stay afloat, no matter how far-fetched. The state of the children is heart-breaking, but Thomas never allows the book to sink into wallowing or woe, and delivers much with some incredibly beautiful and subtle poetry.
Admittedly, the final act relies far too heavily on coincidence and improbable circumstances for my liking, and there is a discovery that, reading as a parent, defies all reasonable logic. They’re a frustrating final few chapters, but it’s a testament to the rest of Thomas’s work that my lasting impression of Secrets of Selkie Bay is overwhelmingly favorable. (It seems to be a bit of a common theme in my reviews this past week or so that the novels I’m reading need more pages to deliver unabashedly satisfying endings.) Secrets of Selkie Bay barely breaks 200 pages, and could easily have justified 300, especially if it had meant an ending that matched the rest in terms of care and emotional impact.
I see this as a very, very good book, that fell just short of greatness, but in a genre that is flooded with books that rehash the themes of young romance and juvenile disaffection, and hold the quirky outsider as the go-to character type, the fact Secrets of Selkie Bay so avoids all common cliches is worth a great deal, and that it does all of this without any layers of hollow flash is practically miraculous. (There’s not even a love interest to be found!) I would heartily recommend this book to anyone, but especially to those who might be tired of the same old same old, and are looking for something they’ve never seen before.
Kinderlit.ca requested and received a copy of Secrets of Selkie Bay in exchange for an honest review. Read about our review policy HERE.