One Saved to the Sea takes its title from a tale told in the Orkney Islands of northernmost Scotland. Selkies, shapeshifters who are seals in the sea and human on land, can be trapped and forced to remain human and in servitude to whoever steals their sealskins while they are in human form. The story as related in fragments in the book is that a selkie woman has been freed and given back her skin, returning to the sea, and repays the debt by saving three children who wander into deep water. “One saved to the sea, three saved to the land.”
Many stories have been woven around the subject of selkies, and many songs sung; I especially remember the hauntingly beautiful folksong Joan Baez made famous in the 60s. Any such stories I’ve read since then haven’t stuck in my mind, but this book by Catt Kingsgrave comes close to being as hauntingly beautiful in its own way as the folksong, and I’ll remember it just as well.
The story is beautifully written, sometimes lyrical, sometimes grittily realistic, in a blend that fits the setting and the characters exactly right. Mairead, the protagonist, tends a lighthouse on the rocky coast of an Orkney island while her three brothers are away fighting in WWII and her grief stricken father is sinking into dementia.
We see her first in all her necessary strength, wielding an oar as a weapon against a local low-life who has stolen a selkie’s skin and then dropped it when Mairead clipped him hard on the head. When he tries to get it back, she tells him, You wasn’t born wearing it, and her that was will be wanting it back again. Then she clips him again.
When she searches for the selkie to return the skin, we see a different side of her.
The moonlight revealed no soft curve of white skin on the river-mouth island; no trembling whorl of wood-dark hair in the shadows of sea-carved stone.
She has watched the selkies dance on rare moonlit nights since she was a child, and now fears that they’ve been scared away for good.
God, how she would miss it. The dancing, yes; the flash of limbs in the moonlight, lovely girls pale as foam and plump as plums, their dark hair glimmering as they danced under the moon, but later. Oh, later. When they danced in pairs and threes, tangled like driftwood in a restless tide.
The tone and rhythm of the writing are just right, evoking the rough, wild setting, the people who have eked out a living there for generations, and the poetic turn of mind that produces such legends. Besides the lovely language, there’s an engrossing plot that becomes clear early on and thus has no big surprises, but keeps the reader involved just the same. I won’t go into the details, so as not to reveal too much in the way of spoilers, but events unfold in ways that seem inevitable and are, for the most part, satisfying.
This is fantasy that fits seamlessly into a story that is otherwise quite realistic, and the language fits both aspects. Some terms from Orkney dialect take a while to understand, but the context makes them clear.
The sex scenes are no exception. Here are just a couple of tastes:
One of them made a desperate, hungry sound, equal kin to sob and sigh, and with a single, shocked wriggle the kiss fitted itself snug and solid between them. No room for words, for shame, for a lick of care that anyone might come and see, and watch Mairead drowning in arms and eyes and a rain of dark hair far softer than any fur pelt... and
She had lain with this girl, this mad, wild, fey creature—had lain with her and loved her now enough to let herself be led nearly naked to the shallow trink, and the holm rising beyond it. How could she begin to worry about the sin of it now?
For all the book’s exquisite writing, however, I’m not sure it should be classed as erotica, even though I personally love works that have much more “story” to them than sex. And I am sure that many wouldn’t class it as a novel, being about eighty pages. By my rough computation that’s a bit under thirty thousand words, novella-length by professional fantasy and science fiction standards.
This in no way makes the book less worth reading than any other, though. It’s a fine, fine novella, and, just as with wild sex without regard to sin, there’s nothing wrong with that.