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by Regina McBride

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-7432-0323-2
Publisher: Scribner

Elegant prose distinguishes a first novel set in modern Ireland that reads like a reclaimed folktale.

Narrator Clodagh begins the story with her own birth, a sad affair dominated by the loneliness of her mother, Agatha. As a teenager, Agatha slept in caves and wandered the seaside fields of Frank Sheehy's estate. Sickly, frail Frank fell in love with the white-haired wandering girl, scrubbed the calluses off her feet, and married her. But, as Clodagh states in the opening, Agatha "was never easy in the world of houses," which helps explain why her neighbors began saying she wasn't a woman at all but a selkie: a seal lured from the sea by the love of a man, a selkie sheds her animal skin for a moment of passion and is doomed to the land until she can reclaim her skin, traditionally hidden by the new husband. When Frank dies, pregnant Agatha is sent to a grand house far away to raise Clodagh and her ailing twin, Mare. Clodagh uses the selkie myth to explain her mother's strange behavior: Agatha's penchant for wandering the cliffs and violent shoreline, for closing up the expansive house and living roughly in the kitchen, for disappearing at night wearing a sealskin dress bedecked with shells. There may be a simpler explanation: born to tinkers, Agatha longs for their unsettled life of traveling by horse-drawn caravan from town to town selling bits of pottery and ephemera. Mare dies, and Agatha becomes more unhinged and distant, spending days at a time at the tinker's camp, where Clodagh is sure she has a lover. One day, as Clodagh watches, Agatha returns to the sea. Sent to boarding school, Clodagh uses music to mend her sorrow, but the history of the shadowy Agatha calls to her when she meets a beautiful tinker man and follows him to become his lover. When he reveals startling secrets about himself and Agatha, the story becomes less mythic—and far more tragic.

A fine debut, unsettling and magical.