This is a strange and beautifully written tale told by two young women, Mary and Morgan. Mary lives in a community on an island where the islanders trade with the “tall men” who come from the mainland. Boys on the island start to disappear, and Mary suspects the tall men. One day, when the tall men come, Mary’s little brother Barney also goes missing.

Morgan, meanwhile, lives in a house from which she is not allowed to leave. Her mother has built a huge fence around this house, which she keeps padlocked, and is apparently hiding from something that has happened in the past. None of the family, except for the father, are ever allowed out.

And then there’s the Thrashing House—a central point in the story and a character in its own right. It is a place that comes alive to punish those who commit crimes. No one who goes in there is ever seen again. It is the women who hold the key to this place, and and it is they who decide—at least to some extent—who needs to be sent there. However, the Thrashing House also has its own way of summoning people.

This is a book about searching for something or someone vital: Mary for her little brother, Morgan for escape, Morgan’s mother for safety, an island woman for a part of her self buried in the ground. The book is about secrets and traumas, and the healing that follows, although this is just hinted at and left mostly to the reader’s imagination.

The island is full of legends and ghosts, and women who know much more than they are willing to tell. Throw in some magic realism—bird women, the snake ropes of the title, keys that hold memories, seal women or selkies—and you get a wonderful and very atmospheric story.