The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

This is a beautifully written novel based on a little known historical event: the 1627 raid by Barbary pirates on Iceland’s Westman Islands. Around four hundred Icelanders were taken in captivity to Algiers to be sold at the slave markets, among them the priest Ólafur Egilsson, his pregnant wife Ásta Thórsteinsdottir, and two of their children. We know from historical records that Ólafur was released and sent to Denmark to petition the Danish king (Iceland’s ruler in those days) in the hope that he would provide the ransom to free his subjects. His story was preserved in a memoir describing his capture and the voyage there and back, but the story of Ásta, who was not allowed to accompany him on the journey home, has been lost to history.

In The Sealwoman’s Gift, Sally Magnusson has given a voice to Ásta, a woman who, like so many others in centuries gone by, has been ignored and forgotten by history. As we know little or nothing about what happened to Ásta and the other women and children after their arrival on the shores of Algeria, this gives the author the freedom to create an interesting, realistic and believable story to fill in the gaps. She writes with sensitivity and understanding as she describes Ásta’s pain at being separated from her husband and children, her changing feelings for the man who buys her – Ali Pitterling Cilleby – and the agonising decision she eventually has to make.

There’s a lot for Ásta to adjust to in her new life; Algeria and Iceland couldn’t be more different, with very different climates, customs, foods, languages and religions. The religious difference is one of the most difficult for Ásta to accept – as the wife of a Lutheran minister, the possibility of her children having to convert to Islam is not easy for her to come to terms with. We also follow Ólafur on his return to Heimaey in the Westman Islands and see both the short-term and long-term effects the raids have had on the community. With such a small population to begin with, the loss of several hundred of their people has a big impact; it seems that almost everyone has lost a husband or wife, a child or a parent or a friend.

Iceland has a strong tradition of storytelling and some of these myths, legends and sagas are woven into the novel as Ásta finds some solace in remembering the stories of her homeland and narrating them to her master and his wives. This is another aspect of the book that I liked; you can learn a lot about a country from its stories and its folklore.

Sally Magnusson (who is the daughter of the television presenter Magnus Magnusson) has previously written several non-fiction books, but this seems to be her first novel. I liked her writing, apart from the fact that she chose to write in the present tense. I’m really not a fan of present tense and in this case I found it distracting and distancing, which I’m sure is not what the author intended. It’s down to personal taste, I suppose – you either have a problem with it or you don’t. I also thought that, while Ásta, Ólafur and the other Icelandic people are strong, interesting characters, the characters they meet in Algiers feel less well developed. If I’d had a stronger feeling for Cilleby, for example, as a person, I think I would have found the later stages of the story more emotional.

These are just small criticisms and, as I’ve said, are probably just due to my tastes as a reader rather than the book itself, which is getting great reviews and really is a fascinating read.

Thanks to Two Roads for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

32 thoughts on “The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

  1. The Book Whisperer says:

    I’ve bought myself a copy of this, Helen. I’m so glad you enjoyed it; I’m looking forward to reading it. Have you read Sealskin by Su Bristowe? That’s a folklore tale and was my favourite book of last year.

  2. piningforthewest says:

    I haven’t read any of Sally Magnusson’s books yet, but I really like her, she’s a newsreader/journalist on BBC Scotland. I think I would enjoy this one. and I hadn’t heard about it so – thanks.

  3. FictionFan says:

    Oh, thanks for the reminder of this one – I had marked it as one to look out for and then it fell off my radar somehow. Glad to hear you were so impressed, though, like you, that present tense would bother me too. However it still sounds well worth reading…

    • Helen says:

      So many books seem to be written in the present tense these days it’s impossible to avoid them, but yes, this one is definitely still worth reading!

  4. cirtnecce says:

    Great review Helen! I really like the premises of taking on a little know historic incident and I like how you say the folk tales are weaved in to give an deep insight for the country. I am putting this one my TBR!

    • Helen says:

      I’ve never read anything about the pirate raids on Iceland before and it was great to find a book on such a little known subject! I loved all the Icelandic stories and legends too.

  5. Carmen says:

    I like that, as you say, the author weaves the folklore tales with the little it is known from history and her own imagination. Taking into account your niggles, which sound totally valid, this story still seems fascinating.

    • Helen says:

      The problems I had were just small ones, really – it’s still a fascinating and beautifully written novel. The Icelandic folklore added another layer which I thought was interesting too.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    The leader of one of my reading groups feels the same way about present tense. She says it makes her feel rushed and pushed while reading. But this sounds quite good. I like Iceland stories.

    • Helen says:

      I would definitely recommend it if you like reading about Iceland. I don’t think I will ever be a fan of present tense, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying this book.

  7. Lark says:

    This story sounds interesting…despite the fact that it’s written in present tense. (Which isn’t my favorite either.) It’s an event in history I’m certainly not familiar with. And I do love that cover. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s fascinating, despite the present tense! The cover is pretty, isn’t it – although I’m not sure that it’s very representative of the story.

  8. Sandra says:

    Definitely one I want to read. I read The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson last summer, which is about a similar raid by barbary pirates on Cornwall, so it will be fascinating to see how the two authors have dealt with essentially the same subject. And a reminder for Sealskin – which must be somewhere on my tbr list but perhaps needs a bump up!

    • Helen says:

      I have enjoyed some of Jane Johnson’s other books but I haven’t read The Tenth Gift and didn’t realise it was also about barbary pirate raids. It sounds as though I definitely need to read that one!

  9. Lindsay says:

    Great to read your positive thoughts on this one, I keep hovering over buying it, or may order it at the library, I heard the author speaking about it on Radio 2 Book Club and it sounded really interesting, seen several good reviews.

    • Helen says:

      I definitely think it’s worth looking for at the library, even if you don’t buy it. I don’t think I’ve read a bad review yet, and the few problems I had with it were really just minor ones.

  10. jazzfeathers says:

    WOW! This sounds so intersting!
    I have to admit I’ve never read any story set in this time and place and I’m very intrigued by the shocking change Asta has to go through. I think it allows for a lot of self-discovery and awareness, which is what I love in any kind of stories.

    I understand your dislke for the present tense narration. I don’t like it either. But yeah, I suppose is a personal matter.

    Thanks so much for sharing this 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I had never read anything about 17th century Iceland or Algeria either, so I found this book fascinating. Asta does have to go through some big changes and she learns a lot about herself by the end of the book. I hope you have an opportunity to read it too. 🙂

  11. whatmeread says:

    I just looked at this review again after reading your post about the longlist for Walter Scott. This really looks interesting. I’m going to put it on my reading list. I must have read this review, because I read all of your reviews, but I don’t remember it at all. Maybe I missed it somehow.

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