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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The Whispering Muse by Sjón tr. Victoria Cribb

Whispering MuseThe Whispering Muse by Icelandic poet, songwriter and novelist Sjón, known for his collaborations with Björk and winner of the Nordic Council Literary Prize (equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) for this novel, was the first book I chose to read for the New year.

I chose it because it’s by an Icelandic author and because it delves into the realm of myth and fable, Alberto Manguel called it:

“an extraordinary, powerful fable – a marvel.”

I loved this gem of a book, which demanded much more from the reader wanting true fulfilment, than the mere 143 pages it was written on.

It is an invitation to embark on the adventures of The Argonauts, as told by the second mate Caeneus, who while voyaging on a ship in 1949 narrates his previous adventures on the ship Argo under Captain Jason in their quest for the Golden Fleece.

“Before embarking on his tales the mate had the habit of drawing a rotten chip of wood from his pocket and holding it to his right ear like a telephone receiver. He would listen to the chip for a minute or two, closing his eyes as if asleep, while under his eyelids his pupils quivered to and fro.”

Not being familiar with the epic poem written by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC) I diverged off course to familiarise myself with its plot, and some of the named characters mentioned, as the book is full of mythological literary references that make a pleasant and fulfilling divergence in its reading, not least of which we learn why Caeneus has much respect for wood, though more is revealed on its significance later.

Set in 1949 as an elderly, eccentric Icelandic man is invited by the father of one of the fans of his work on Nordic culture and fish consumption, to embark on a voyage at sea from Copenhagen to the Black Sea, he recounts his journey as he sees it, while learning about the grand voyage of Caeneus and his many transformations.

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The sources quoted on the last page provide a link to the ancient sparks that ignited the imagination of Sjón. Familiarity with The Argonauts, Medea, Hypsipyle and Metamorphoses would benefit, but the story is equally accessible with superficial knowledge of those stories.

Entertaining, intriguing, intellectually stimulating and fun, what more could one ask for from a book read on the 1st day of the new year 2016.

I scribbled more notes in the margin than I have every done before and I’m still wondering whether the old man might have had a mild dementia, as the latter part of the book has him witnessing some strange, unaccounted for events. Nothing is ever as it seems and a reader’s imagination can contribute as much to the story as one wishes.

“I was thinking: could the voice you detect in the humming of the wood be your own voice? Like the poet who obstinately believes that he is writing about the world but is in reality only telling yet another story about himself?”

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

After spending a few months with me in London some years ago, a very good friend was about to return to New Zealand and was making some major changes in her life, both personal and in her career. She wasn’t entirely sure what job she wanted to do, but knew it would be in the great outdoors. She loved to travel and she loved nature. I organised a subscription to Wanderlust Travel magazine for her, an inspiration of amazing photography, fabulous ideas for out-of-the-way places to visit and best of all, a link to exciting jobs for those who love to travel across cultures, to be outdoors and meet people.

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Life on the Milford Track

She completed a diploma, training in the skills required to become an outdoor guide and now works for the Department of Conversation as a guide on the Milford Track, this last season she was based in a lodge, only accessible by helicopter or a few days walk in. She is now living her dream job and it is indeed just like those jobs offered in the pages of that inspiring magazine.

Fast forward a few years and I come across a book called Wanderlust : A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. I was interested in it, though stronger was the feeling that I should send it into that remote wilderness to my friend, it seemed to describe where she had arrived at. So I did. I then forgot about the book until I saw the name Rebecca Solnit come up recently on NetGalley, she had a new book coming out The Faraway Nearby. Here is the book I will read I thought and requested it.

Some weeks later while in London one Saturday, I discovered The London Literature Festival was on and at 3.30pm, I could attend a talk by Rebecca Solnit speaking about her book The Faraway Nearby. Serendipity? I bought a ticket, a hardback copy of her book and went to listen to the author, curious, though I had never read a word of her writing.

FarawayThe book is good, but Rebecca Solnit’s ability to captivate an audience is spectacular. I’m almost sorry to admit it, but the live version was even better than the passive written version, which I really enjoyed, the reading experience enhanced significantly by the additional anecdotes and philosophical meanderings of Solnit in person, as she spoke without pause, the voice of a poet.

The talk was hosted by the literary critic Alex Clark, who suggested that the media coined her book not a memoir, but an anti-memoir. Part anti-memoir and part matremoir, it starts with her recounting the gift of 100 pounds of apricots from her mother, one of the few gifts she ever received from her mother and not disconnected from the fact that her mother is undergoing something of a personality change since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She lays them out on her bedroom floor, wanting to appreciate their abundance, but instead embraces a soon to be dissected anxiety.

“The fruit on my floor made me start to read fairy tales again. They are full of overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with, the roomful of straw the poor girl in Rumpelstiltskin needs to spin into gold overnight, the thousand pearls scattered in the forest moss the youngest son needs to gather in order to win the princess, the mountain of sand to be moved by teaspoon. The heaps are only a subset of the category of impossible tasks that included quests, such as gathering a feather from the tail of the firebird who loves at the end of the world, riddles, and facing overwhelming adversaries.”

 

Nature essays, how stories create the narrative of our lives, philosophical meanderings, her chapters weave in and out of many subjects, flitting here and there, as she recounts pieces of a year that passed whilst her mother was regressing. She contemplates and then makes an escape to Iceland, mentions friendships and her passion for visual art, the occasional Buddhist legend, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, pain and leprosy likening her narrative to a Russian matryoshka doll, even going so far as to repeat chapter names in reverse, once she arrives at the hard core (the doll that has no doll).

“My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and then tried to get herself back from a daughter.”

ApricotsThere are many anecdotes, insights and great lines throughout the narrative, however Solnit stops short of going too deep into her subject, she observes the apricots and watches how they change, just as she does her mother, but stops short of looking too deep into the past, of really describing their relationship and how they were with each other, it is implied, not described.

I understand this reluctance, for that percentage of women out there who had the kind of relationship with their mother that Solnit did, there will be many nods of the head in recognition of what she says without having to go into detail. For the rest, it may seem superficial or even harsh, but they are the words of a mature 58-year-old women, who admits:

“If I had written about her earlier, the story would have had the aura of the courtroom, for I had been raised on the logic of argument and fact and being right, rather than the leap beyond that might be love.”

At the end of the talk, a few people asked questions and at the last minute, but too late I put up my hand, my question deemed to remain silent. Or so I thought. As everyone left the Purcell Room, a woman called Helena sitting next to me who was also visiting from the country for the day, asked me what I had been going to ask. And so I told her – and had a delightful conversation, just as interesting as it might have been, had I asked the author.

The question I wanted to ask was:

Did she believe that a challenging relationship could be a gift, that it could bring her something that she may not otherwise have developed in herself, had it been otherwise?

I suspect the answer is yes, that these relationships do give people something that can be used proactively, if self-awareness is developed to prevent regressing into the negative aspects or effects of those childhood and adulthood experiences. She may not have been able to fix her mother, but it may not be a coincidence that Rebecca Solnit is outspoken and active in terms of her support of nature, the environment, politics and art.

“I didn’t have much sympathy either; it was not that I refused to give it, but that there was none in my equipment yet, perhaps because I had experienced so little of it.”

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.