In order to get the most from Seal Skin it probably helps to be comfortable with mystery. It draws strongly from legend and also from spiritual truth and as a result requires the reader to mine beneath the surface narrative to a deeper strata of meaning . Without that it is a novel that may prove a little strange, frustrating or mundane but once embraced there is a powerful and transformative message to be absorbed.
The story is based on the legend of the Selkie, mythical creatures who live as seals in the sea but can shed their skins and become humans on land. Seal Skin is a beautifully written retelling of the legend that carries ancient wisdom in an accessible read, but it is a story of tensions that is not easily understood by our modern rational minds which like the Selkie’s skin we must learn to set aside if we are to truly hear.
Donald is a loner in a tight and isolated fishing community, he has never really been comfortable either with himself or the people around him. One day he comes across the Selkie who have shed their seal skins and in human form dance among the rocks. He reacts instinctively hiding one of the skins and as the group return to the sea one is left behind unable to go home. Donald acts out of lust and frustration forcing himself upon the stricken Selkie then panics. Filled with fear and regret he takes her back to his home where a plan is hastily formed with his mother for a new human life.
It is a strange and violent start to a novel that immediately casts doubt in the mind of the reader, is there any way that this dreadful start can be resolved in a meaningful way? Rationally it can’t. There can be no way back for a man who has so appallingly assaulted an innocent and so what follows can only be understood from some other level, from a space in which grace can be both offered and accepted but not without cost to all concerned.
Mhairi, as the Selkie is later named, does what many spiritual traditions call all of us to do, she forgives and in doing so she transforms the people around her; but she does not forget. This is not a frivolous act, she truly lets go of her valid claim against Donald and the world that he has forced her into and though she has been wronged and she carries the enormous pain of mourning for the life she has lost, she serves her new community in a way that they cannot resist.
As the story unfolds no one can come into contact with such pure forgiveness and not themselves be changed by it. Donald becomes somebody that Mhairi can genuinely grow to love and in doing so he sets off ripples of his own as grace begins to flow. But do not expect a soppy ending, this is a story about love not romance and love costs. In the end there will be a reckoning, a price that has to be paid, and it is here that the true mystery of grace is revealed, if you can accept it.