The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

This is a beautiful, moving 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 even 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.

Julius by Daphne du Maurier

Julius This book was originally published under the title The Progress of Julius and is the chilling story of an ambitious and ruthless man who goes through life determined to get “something for nothing” and not caring who gets hurt in the process.

The novel begins in 1860 when Julius Levy is born into a family of French peasants who live in a small village on the banks of the Seine. The biggest influences on Julius’s early life are his loud, coarse grandfather and irresponsible mother, but he later grows closer to his father, Paul, a quiet Jewish man. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war the Levys take refuge in Paris until a tragedy results in Julius and his father fleeing for the safety of Paul’s home country, Algeria.

At first, Julius plans to follow a religious life, but he soon finds that buying and selling in the marketplace holds more attraction for him and that he enjoys cheating people out of their money. When life in Algeria starts to bore him, Julius travels to England where he begins to build up a huge business empire. But even as Julius becomes one of the richest and most successful men in the world, he continues to show a complete lack of regard for the people around him, using and manipulating them to get what he wants…until his daughter Gabriel is born.

This was Daphne du Maurier’s third novel, published in 1933 when she was only twenty six years old and it amazes me that she was able to write such a sophisticated, powerful novel at such an early stage of her career. I’ve found that all of du Maurier’s books have some dark and disturbing elements, but this must surely be the darkest and most disturbing of them all – though not in a gothic way like Rebecca or Jamaica Inn. The main reason I found this book so disturbing is because Julius Levy is one of the most horrible, despicable characters I’ve ever come across in literature.

He’s completely heartless, cruel and callous with no redeeming features at all. Early in the story when the Levy family are forced to leave their village for Paris, Julius drowns his beloved cat rather than leave her with a neighbour, because if he can’t have her he doesn’t want anyone else to have her. This is an early indication of what Julius is like and as the story continues there are dozens of other examples of his selfishness and cruelty. And yet, for some reason, he still inspires feelings of love and friendship in other people, which is hard to understand as he rarely, if ever, shows any consideration or compassion for anybody but himself – they always come second to his latest money-making schemes.

As usual, du Maurier’s settings are wonderfully atmospheric, from the small French village of Puteaux to the dusty marketplaces of Algeria to the area of London in which Julius gets his first job in a bakery. The historical setting, beginning with the Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris, is interesting too. This was not one of my favourite du Maurier novels (it was much too uncomfortable and unpleasant for that) but, like all of her books, it kept me gripped and fascinated from the first page to the last.