The Sealwoman’s Gift (2018): Sally Magnusson


For those who judge books on their covers, this is a stunner. Just look at that beautiful design: the stylised waves and breakers; the woman’s face emerging eerily from curls of foam on the front; and the galleon surging towards a precipitous white city on the back. Based on historical fact and informed by an account written by one of its main characters, this remarkably assured debut novel tells the story of a group of Icelandic hostages kidnapped by Turkish corsairs in 1627. Carried off to exotic slavery in Ottoman Algiers, the captives must decide whether to cling to a dream of home, or adapt in order to prosper. How should one choose to live, when you’re never sure if you will ever see your family again? Which chances should be taken? How precious is faith? And what should one do when the charms of captivity threaten to eclipse the lure of home?

The historical account of this raid and its aftermath was written by the Reverend Ólafur Egilsson, pastor of the small community on Heimaey, largest of the Westman Islands on the south-eastern edge of Iceland. When we first meet him, he is one of many captives in the hold of a corsair ship sailing south-west towards Algiers, as his flock pine away around him and his wife Ásta struggles in the throes of childbirth. His high status brings him certain privileges with his captors, but also marks him out in another way. When the shipment of slaves arrives in Algiers, it is decided to send a messenger to King Christian IV of Denmark (then overlord of Iceland) to ask for a ransom. Ólafur, educated, honest and fervent, is that man. Separated from his wife and children, and from his parishioners, Ólafur must follow another path.

Ólafur’s appointment as messenger is historical fact. But it’s also narrative gold, because it gets him out of the way. His later account of the raid is written from the perspective of a literate Christian man – a priest used to homilies, and to understanding the world in a certain way. But Magnusson gives us the chance to stay behind in Algiers when Ólafur leaves and to see another side to the story: the side of those who had to compromise; the side of the women and children who found themselves taken into new households; the side of those who lived long enough in Algiers for it to make a difference. And this is the beauty of Magnusson’s novel. I imagine that in Ólafur’s account we have very clear notions of good and evil, infidel and faithful. But, through the unrecorded lives of those left behind, Magnusson has imagined a world with more nuance and subtlety.

Ásta has always loved ancient stories and sagas, much to the disapproval of her older husband. In Algiers, she finds new uses for stories as a way to preserve the memory of her old life, to remind her children of their heritage, and to form bonds with others in her new home – in the house of the wealthy Moor Cilleby. For here, on the sun-drenched rooftops above the city, Ásta learns new stories – a whole world of stories! – from the deeds of Scheherazade to the tales of the pert servant girl Sympathy. Stories, too, bring her close to her master Cilleby, who develops an ironic taste for the wild sagas of ancient Iceland – and for the proud, challenging woman who tells them. And stories, perhaps, begin to take the place of something else between them – something that neither of them can or dares to openly articulate.

Parts of this book reminded me so much of The Abduction from the Seraglio, in the sense of the relationship between Ásta and Cilleby. Like Pasha Selim, Cilleby is an educated and generous man, a loving father, and a gracious captor. Like Constance (at least, in the David McVicar version I’ve seen), Ásta is torn between head and heart, past and future. As the years pass and Christian IV of Denmark fails to find any money for ransoms, she begins to believe that the decision will be taken out of her hands. But far away in Iceland, her husband Ólafur is desperately rallying support to raise money to bring their countrymen home – whatever the cost. Little do either of them know how great a journey lies ahead of them – not only of the body, but also of the heart.

Although this lovely tale is romantic and poignant, it never loses itself in sentiment. It gives a voice to women, but isn’t a book purely for women: its scope is much broader than that, dealing with questions that are common to us all. How can we cope with exile, the loss of family members and the fear that we might never see home again? How can we weigh up different kinds of love, as parent, spouse, potential lover? Is present love more seductive than absent love? Is freedom always to be preferred over slavery? As to this last, it’s ironically in the condition of slavery that Ásta finds herself free, for the first time in her life, to make her own decisions – an intoxicating prospect but also a terrifying one, because her future is now her own responsibility.

Sensitive, intelligent and luxuriously imaginative, it must be one of the very few novels to deal with this later period in Iceland’s history – not to mention the Westman Islands. Of course, I now itch to go there, to these bleak, windswept and yet beautiful places, full of seabirds and puffins. Magnusson, as you may have guessed from the name, is the daughter of Magnus Magnusson (himself a proud chronicler of Nordic legends), and every page of her novel testifies to her love of Iceland’s history and culture: the sagas, the legends, the land itself. Vivid, haunting and tantalising.

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