The Sealwoman’s Gift

Do you wonder how people live in places which are very cold where winters last for months? I – a chilly mortal who resents having to rifle through the freezer for food – certainly balk at the idea. How do people pass the time when there’s barely daylight for weeks? How did they pass the time before central heating or television, when poverty meant even candlewax had to be conserved (so no chance to knit and sew), a time when there were few or no books?

Sally Magnusson’s novel gives some insight and the answer is – well, of course – they told each other stories: sagas that spun over many evenings. Set in the seventeenth century, The Sealwoman’s Gift starts off in Iceland on the island of Heimaey and centers around Ásta who delights in hearing of heroines who are feisty yet fallible and elves, God’s other children, whose depiction borders on the blasphemous.  Some stories feature heroes so handsome that they inspire the odd daydream during hours of drudgery at the weaving loom or during ‘the backbreaking plucking of a thousand feathers’ as food stocks for winter need to be prepared.  Asta herself has the makings of a heroine of an epic: she is observant, passionate, outspoken. But The Sealwoman’s Gift takes her on a journey in a very different direction.  One summer’s day as Asta is about to give birth to her fourth child, a pirate raid sees her captured along with several hundred other islanders, her husband and children among them. They’re stowed away and taken three thousand miles to Algiers then sold into slavery. If this seems far-fetched, preposterous even, it’ll surprise you to hear it actually happened: Magnusson’s novel is a kind of companion piece to the much-earlier account of his experiences written by Asta’s husband, Lutheran priest Ólafur Egilsson.

After a dramatic sea journey, Asta disembarks in a city that is like a different world. This is my kind of climate (I lived for a year in Algiers and didn’t wish to leave), with an abundance of fresh food and the scent of spices and flowers in the sea breeze. But Algiers of 1627 sees Asta become the property of a Moor Ali Pitterling Cilleby. Once she learns the language, a kind of affinity develops between Asta and her master who is himself a product of two cultures.  Their discussions give Magnusson the opportunity to broach topics that still trouble and fascinate centuries later: the condition of being a slave, the differences between Christianity and Islam, the fate of faith itself after it’s most severely tested.

I’ve now read this well-researched and very moving novel twice and will do so again. It’s worth it just for the portrayal of Asta and Olafur’s marriage in its many stages. Olafur, Asta observes, is like one of the puffins that populate Heimaey every year in their thousands: from the back sober and serious yet colourful and comical in revealing a side.  But there are many other characters woven into this book as well as themes I don’t wish to reveal.  My gift to you is to point you towards finding out for yourself!  If you’re new to Icelandic places and names, the start may be a little confusing but there’s a helpful character list as well as maps to refer to (for this reason, the book format might work better than an e-book). And don’t be put off thinking it’s about seals!

Have you read The Sealwoman’s Gift? What did you think? Have you been to Algiers or Iceland?  Could you make them your home?