Secrets of Selkie Bay
About loss, responsibility, magic and family, SECRETS OF SELKIE BAY manages to do something fairly rare in the world of middle grade novels --- it reads like it's a book anyone could enjoy. I was surprised from the start that the prose doesn't talk down to its audience, doesn't expect kids to refuse to face some difficult concepts and dark themes. Not that the book is difficult, exactly, but it is complex in ways that caught me a little off guard and made me enjoy the book on a deeper level.
The story follows Cordelia, the oldest daughter of a family whose mother has just disappeared. Like magic, one day she was there and the next was gone. Her disappearance has left a wound in the family, and Cordelia, only 11 years old herself, struggles to pick up the slack. She watches her two younger sisters and tries to earn some money, but the stress and the anger at her abandonment festers and she finds herself more and more upset and yearning.
The prose is elegant, beautiful and at times haunting, and the plot flows well; it held my attention tight before coasting into the ending that is powerful and effective.
SECRETS OF SELKIE BAY does an amazing job with its young protagonists, namely Cordelia and her younger sister Ione. The bond of sisterhood that draws them together is often tested as Ione chafes under Cordelia's attempts to make up for their mother's absence. And when that absence becomes too difficult to explain, it is their relationship that creates the story of the Selkies: the story that their mother didn't leave of her own will but had to return to the sea as a Selkie and is now trapped in seal form. It's tragic and it's gripping and it's dark, and it's also what makes this book so magical, what gives it a dynamic and moving story arc.
Because, though at first the story is a lie that Cordelia tells to quiet her sister, it soon becomes something more than that, and Cordelia finds herself wanting to believe it, too. It is the crux of a plot that overall might be mistaken as simple, but that I think is focused. There is a weight to SECRETS OF SELKIE BAY, a potency that would have easily been diluted by introducing more action, more characters, more storylines.
What SECRETS OF SELKIE BAY does is tell a very clean and emotional story featuring children that feel real. The only complaint I had was the conflict with the gruff old fisherman who hates Selkies. I didn’t think the book does a bad job with him, he just seemed a little too…out of place, at times, like he had nothing to do other than participate in the novel. Still, even he is used to good effect to build the mythology of the Selkies.
The book blurs the line between magic and mundane, making for a slightly surreal but very enjoyable experience. The prose is elegant, beautiful and at times haunting, and the plot flows well; it held my attention tight before coasting into the ending that is powerful and effective. All in all, I think SECRETS OF SELKIE BAY provides an engaging and lyrical story of children coming to grips with their first brush of loss and adult responsibility, forced to grow up before their time but unable to fully slip from the magic of childhood. It is a story tinged with sadness and tragedy and barely controlled anger, but it is also a story of family and understanding and setting aside fear. All that in just under 200 pages. It's quite a read.
Reviewed by Charles Payseur on July 7, 2015