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?

Little and strange

Firstly I want to apologise for neglecting this blog for so long. Not only had I failed to write posts but I hadn’t checked in to see if all was ok, not until I got word that the site had been hi-jacked by pirates who’d replaced content with a porn site. I am sorry if you visited during this disruption to service, especially if you did so by following a link from another sewing blog. I trust the sordid discovery didn’t lead you astray!

Do you get excited when a novel you much love gets made into a film? Or maybe you dread it, in case they haven’t made a good enough job?
Tomorrow sees the UK release of The Little Stranger, a ghost story based on a Sarah Waters novel of the same name. At the time the book was published I was living in a flat in Blackheath on the edges of Greenwich Park. We were renting the ground floor of what had once been an impressive (but not imposing) four-storey residence, one of many ‘Captains’ Houses’ once linked to the military personnel of the barracks in nearby Woolwich. It’s likely that the aristocratic family who lived in Hundreds Hall, the crumbling mansion at the heart of The Little Stranger, would have looked down on the kind of family that occupied Captain’s House, an attitude that is explored in the novel. But my Captain’s House outlived the dilapidating fate of Hundreds Hall, because once the austerity measures of the 1930s kicked in and families were no longer able to retain numerous servants required for the upkeep of such large homes, the houses in Blackheath were divided into spacious and bright flats and they’re very popular with young families like mine, couples and singletons of every age. Some rent for a few years before moving on, reluctantly so, because in comparison any other home seems rather ordinary.

Back of the house, Lemmy in the foreground left. Our flat was the one with the blue curtains, which I later made into dungarees!

One evening in the flat I hosted the monthly book club I’d recently joined, and we discussed The Little Stranger (my choice). It was fun. Despite drinking lots of wine I remember the evening well. Barbara was there. We laughed a lot, though that was not unusual. We rounded off the discussion by turning to one of my favourites themes: experiences of the supernatural. I have always struggled to believe in the supernatural yet nothing fascinates me more. Barbara and her husband Martin recounted a funny story of what had happened to them in a small hotel in France, when they encountered a mystery creature part ghost, part rat – their landlady refused to acknowledge the latter!

Barbara died in 2013. I’d assumed our friendship would grow over decades, in instalments, on the first Tuesday of the month but it now feels I knew her for but a fraction of my life. I knew that like me she loved Anne Tyler, Barbara Pym and cats who she treated like companions.

Martin arranged for Barbara’s memorial service to be in a church where she’d worked as a volunteer. A pale stone building in the City I had overlooked a hundred times as I’d rushed past it to and from work. It was Valentine’s Day, cold and stormy. When I returned home, I discovered Lemmy, my very old black cat, had suddenly become incapacitated. Lemmy had been with me for eighteen years, ever since I’d adopted him from CPL. He was forgiving of my having two children and so gentle with them that I’d named him jokingly Chief Babysitter. He died later that night. But the next time I passed Barbara’s church, something caught my eye that made me stop in my tracks. A picture of a cat had appeared, drawn in black on the church stone, small but defined, at my eye level. I felt instantly Barbara had sent me a mischievous message.

Of course I don’t really believe Barbara graffitied on a Grade 1 listed building, not even from the after life! It is more likely to be a coincidence. But every time I pass the church (the drawing is still there) I think of her, and of Lemmy and feel a kind of certainty that the three of us are infinitely linked.

If you watch the film, tell me what you think.