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.