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I nod. "Awful day." And because we say it all the time, because it's the kind of silly, ordinary thing you could call one of our "refrains," or maybe because of the weed I've smoked, a whole bunch of days seem pressed together inside this moment, more than you could count. There's the time we all went out for New Year's Eve, and Uncle Tad drove me, and when he stopped and I opened the door he told me to close it, and I said "I will when I'm on the other side," and when I told Mona we laughed so hard we had to run away and hide in the bathroom. There's the day some people we know from school came in and we served them wine even though they were underage and Mona got nervous and spilled it all over the tablecloth, and the day her nice cousin came to visit and made us cheese-and-mint sandwiches in the microwave and got yelled at for wasting food. And the day of the party for Mona's mom's birthday, when Uncle Tad played music and made us all dance, and Mona's mom's eyes went jewelly with tears, and afterward Mona told me: "I should just run away. I'm the only thing keeping her here." My God, awful days. All the best days of my life.

Much like "All Our Pretty Songs", Sofia Samatar’s "Selkie Stories Are For Losers" mixes folklore with a contemporary story of intense female friendship, love and troubled families set against the backdrop of summer jobs. I’m a big fan of small town stories which light up regular lives through the use of carefully chosen detailing. And I love fantasy stories which bring magic down to earth by setting it in everyday situations. So, the variation of urban fantasy in Samatar’s story, which mixes the deliberately mundane like the details of crappy jobs, random jokes, aimless hours spent hanging around with folklore, is a knock out hit for me. The combination of the magical and the commonplace creates a sense of specificity which grounded me and made it easy for me to relate to the story.

Mona is the only other server at Le Pacha who's a girl. She's related to everybody at the restaurant except me. The owner, who goes by "Uncle Tad," is really her uncle, her mom's brother. "Don't talk to him unless you have to," Mona advised me. "He's a creeper." That was after she'd sighed and dropped her cigarette and crushed it out with her shoe and stepped into my clasped hands so I could boost her up to the window, after she'd wriggled through into the kitchen and opened the door for me. She said, "Madame," in a dry voice, and bowed. At least, I think she said "Madame." She might have said "My lady." I don't remember that night too well, because we drank a lot of wine.

The use of small specific details also makes the unnamed narrator’s feelings for Mona feel immediately real and connected me to her emotions. I have extremely particular taste in romance. The heavens may whirl, the stars collide and the music swell - that’s all very effective. However, it’s the small gestures that could only have come from one person to another which make a love story sing.

In "Selkie Stories Are For Losers", those small gestures include Mona playacting the knight for her female friend and the narrator saying ‘Dear Mona: When I look at you, my skin hurts’. Those unexpected and unique ways of expressing themselves, built out of such specific detail, make these two characters feel human and made me invest in their potential romance. And the same applies to their friendship. It’s the particular way they open up to each other which shape them into individual characters, for example when Mona says "Actually I cry a lot. That's something you should know.” It’s partly the vulnerability of the narrative, which comes partly from having such close access to these girls' emotions, which made me love these characters so much. I’m going to be obnoxious and say I wished this story was a whole novel so we could see how their story develops when they move to Colorado.

The other reason I wish this short story were a novel is down to the way it uses selkie stories. Selkie stories are traditionally about magical creatures transformed into women and the men who steal their skins in order to keep them trapped on land in female form. Selkie Stories Are For Losers is a revisionist tale told from the perspective of a selkie’s daughter. The narrator peppers her tale with selkie stories; most end with the selkie free, and the man alone. Read through a feminist lens these are stories of empowerment regained.

However, the unnamed narrator doesn’t celebrate the way these selkies escape. She alternates between describing her life with Mona and explaining why selkie stories suck. The story’s opening paragraph gives you a hint as to why the narrator is so set against them:

I hate selkie stories. They're always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said "What's this?", and you never saw your mom again.

As the reader follows the story through it becomes clear that the narrator has personally experienced the consequences of being involved with a selkie.

The narrator complicates the empowerment angle of the typical selkie story by reminding us that the women have other ties on land and that it doesn’t matter if your mother is returning to her rightful place in the sea, it still hurts when she goes:

She doesn't think about how the little girl is going to miss her, or how if she's been breathing air all this time she can surely keep it up a little longer. She just throws on the skin and jumps into the sea.

This is a fresh and interesting perspective, but I feel it needed to be explored further and that it could have benefited from allowing all the parties involved to have an equal voice. Stories about children, particularly daughters, caught up in their mother’s struggles for escape and female empowerment are tricky to tell from one perspective without apportioning blame. And, as this story doesn’t provide much space for the mother’s story, I felt like it lost some of the realistic complexity of the situation. I wanted this facet of the story to have more of the relationship between Nzilla and Delphine in "One Crazy Summer" about it. Y’know but with selkies.

Still, it was interesting to see this story ending with a different feminist idea about the generational gap between women:

I won't even tell her what she needs to know: that we've got to be tougher than our moms, that we've got to have different stories, that she'd better not change her mind and drop me in Colorado because I won't understand, I'll hate her forever and burn her stuff and stay up all night screaming at the woods, because it's stupid not to be able to breathe, who ever heard of somebody breathing in one place but not another, and we're not like that, Mona and me…

It’s easy to see why Sofia Samatar’s "Selkie Stories Are For Losers" has made it onto the Hugo short fiction ballot. The unnamed narrator’s voice is swift and sarcastic. Her emotions are open and vulnerable, yet solid and certain. And the substance of the story is both adorable and quietly devastating – SFF fans love when you break our hearts gently. Looking at the competition, it’s shaping up to be a tough vote this year.

Other Reviews

Susan Hated Literature

Date: 2014-07-07 01:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh I really liked this short story when I read it last month (my review ( I'd certainly read the novel based on it :)


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