The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

As soon as I read the premise for this historical novel, I knew I wanted to read it. A tale that travels from Iceland to Algiers, inspired by a true story, one that acknowledges the power of imagination and oral storytelling from within different cultures.

Described as The Turkish Raid or Tyrkjaránið, the inspiration for the novel is based on the invasion of Iceland in 1627 by pirates from Algeria and Morocco, also known as Barbary pirates (a reference to the Barbary coast, a term used by Europeans in the 16th century, referring to the coastal aspect of the collective lands of the Berber people of North Africa). They were lead by the ambitious and cunning Dutch captain Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, commonly known as Murat Reis the Younger, himself captured and “turned Turk”.

They were referred to as Turks, as Algeria was then part of the expansive Ottoman Empire. Icelandic villagers were abducted, and taken by ship to be sold as slaves in Algiers, a request for a ransom was made to the Danish King, and a few would make it back home.

Relative to its size, Iceland, the furthest north the corsairs reached, was hit particularly hard. To lose four hundred people out of a population of around forty thousand – including most of the island of Heimaey – is by any standards a stupendous national tragedy, particularly for what was at the time the poorest country in Europe. That may be one reason why Iceland has kept painfully in its collective psyche what has largely faded from the memory of other affected nations. It may also be down to the Icelandic compulsion to write. Voluminous historical narratives were written afterwards and copied by hand. It was felt important that the nation’s great trauma should be understood and never forgotten.

The Sealwoman’s Gift follows one family, Ólafur the local pastor, his relatively younger wife Asta and two of their children, all of whom are abducted, the mother due to give birth, which she does on the ship. Initially Ólafur is herded onto a different ship, perhaps due to his advanced age, however he manages to fight his way to his wife and children, allowed to do so while others are struck down for such defiance, when his ability to calm the captives is noted by the Captain.

They voyage across the sea to Algiers where their fate awaits them. While on the ship, one of the islanders Oddrún – affectionately referred to as the sealwoman, due to her insistent belief that she was a seal who came ashore and had her sealskin stolen, forcing her to remain human – has a dream, another shared prophecy, words that are usually ignored, but given their predicament and desire for escape, are this time listened to attentively.

‘I have seen Ólafur in a great palace. He is kneeling before the king.’

She also has words for Asta, referring to Gudrún, the female character in the Icelandic myth, the 13th century Laxdaela saga.

‘Do not do as Gudrún did’

It’s not possible to write too much about what happens without spoiling the discovery for the reader, suffice to say that poverty-stricken conservative Christian Icelanders arriving in the warm, lush climate of Algiers, where, although they are enslaved, many will live in ways less harsh than what they have experienced in freedom, and children will be both born and grow up within a culture and religion unlike their home country, one that some will embrace, others will defy, awaiting the response of their king to the request for a ransom.

Those that return, in turn, face the dilemma of reacclimatising to their culture and way of life, so different to what they have experienced, the memories of their time of enslavement never far from their thoughts and the judgments of those who were not caught felt in a wayward glance.

How could she have forgotten, how could she possibly not have remembered, what it is like to live for month after month with only a few watery hours of light a day,  with cold that seeps into your bones and feet that are always wet? Is it conceivable that she never noticed before how foul the habits are here?…

Can she not have noticed how the turf walls bend in on you and bear down on you until you are desperate to break out and breathe again? Only there is no roof to escape to here but just gabled grass, and the wind would toss you off it anyway if it did not freeze you first. To think she spent more than thirty winters in a house like this, yet only now is oppressed by the way the stinking fulmar oil in the lamp mingles with the stench of the animals and the meat smoking over the kitchen fire and the ripe sealskin jackets on their hook, making her sick with longing for the tang of mint and cumin and an atrium open to the sky.

While much of the Reverend Ólafur Egillson’s story is known from journals he kept, that have been transcribed and translated and kept his story and that of the islanders alive, not much is known of the fate of his wife Asta while she was captive, an interlude that the author immerses herself in through the imagination. A fragment of engraved stone is all that remains to commemorate the life of this woman who lived an extraordinary life, the details of which she took with her to the grave.

‘History can tell us no more than it does about any woman of the time in Iceland or anywhere else, unless she happened to be a queen.’

Overall, this story provides a thrilling depiction of the terror of a pirate invasion that changed the lives of 400 islanders from Iceland, their journey across seas to Algiers, the slave markets and fates of those who survived, their children and an imagining of how they may have coped as they watched their youth grow up and become part of another culture and way of life, while older Icelanders struggled with what they retained within them of their past and the changes that would envelope them in the years that followed, in a strange new land, one that despite their suffering, also offered opportunities they would never have encountered at home.

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Note: Thank you to the publisher Two Roads, for providing a review copy.

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8 thoughts on “The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

  1. I’m so happy you enjoyed this novel and what a wonderful summary you give (without giving anything away). It’s such an engaging story and the contrasts between the two environments so vivid!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved it and it’s thanks to your review for bringing it to my attention, it’s a fascinating and little known piece of history and thoughtfully imagined in terms of the experience of the women. I would love to see it on screen and for them to travel even deeper into the experience of the women, the clash of cultures and beliefs and that dilemma of the slave beginning to fall for her captor and the environment within which she lives. It’s really not surprising that many crossed over, humanity being what it is.

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    • It’s a fun read and an interesting insight into a little known history Sandra. It’s also interesting how the myths and storytelling of the different cultures overlap in ways that shows their common threads and how living among people eventually shows us that we are none and better or worse than the other, every culture and race has elements that will be drawn towards exploitation, or towards reverence and good, and all will wish to do the best for their own.

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