Catt Kingsgrave’s One Saved to the Sea, published 2012, is astonishing for its use of language and setting. The story is set in the Orkneys during World War 2 and the protagonist Mairead is the daughter of the ailing lighthouse keeper. The author’s portrayal of a barren and dangerous world, of local dialect and fishing and lighthouse keeping, are convincing enough that I was left wondering whether this was personal experience.
The sense of danger from the elements is clear – the need to be constantly vigilant (danger to Mairead’s father from himself, the danger to ships in the fog and at night) – but so also the escalating personal danger to Mairead from Helzie the thief, from the policeman and some villagers who are unhappy with the violence of her self-defence, and from the uncertainty over her future once her father dies. This is a time and place where to be a woman is to belong to a man.
Mairead does not want to belong to a man. Nor do the selkies, who are seals in the sea who can cast aside their skins to dance on land, where they are beautiful and can pass for human.
Whoever possesses the skin of a selkie has the power to enslave – a powerful lure for a man in search of an obedient wife. But Mairead is determined to protect the selkies who dance on her island, even as her own life and freedom are increasingly in danger.