The Sealwoman’s Gift

Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, £16.99

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Review by Shirley Whiteside

In the 17th century, Barbary pirates prowled European waters, abducting men, women and children and selling them in the slave markets of Algiers and Morocco.

In 1627, pirates raided Iceland and the Reverend Olafur Egilsson, his wife and their children were taken from the small coastal island of Westman along with some 400 of their friends and neighbours. After a long and difficult voyage aboard an overcrowded ship, they arrived at the Algiers slave market. The islanders were sold but Egilsson was freed so that he could go to the King of Denmark, Norway and Iceland to petition for a ransom for his compatriots. Egilsson wrote about his experiences in The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: Captured by Pirates in 1627, but there are no records of how Asta, his wife, fared in a foreign land. For her debut novel, Sally Magnusson has given voice to Asta and she emerges as an intelligent, courageous woman making the best of what life has thrown at her.

Asta has been contentedly married to the much older Egilsson for several years. They have three children and a fourth on the way. Life on Westman is hard. The weather is frequently bleak and feet never seem to dry. Egilsson is a good and godly man, preaching the Lutheran word to his flock and chastising Asta for her belief in elves, the invisible people and her love of the old Icelandic sagas. When the pirates appear only a handful of islanders manage to hide. Some are killed, but Egilsson, Asta and two of their children are rounded up with the others. Conditions on the pirate ship are appalling and Magnusson skilfully evokes the filth, stench and claustrophobic atmosphere as Asta gives birth to a son she names Jon. While on board, Oddrun, a crone who claims to be a sealwoman and has visions of the future, gives Asta a warning that will take her years to understand. “You remember Gudrun from the Laxdaela saga?” she croaks. “Do not do as Gudrun did.”

The islanders’ arrival at the slave market sees them treated like livestock. Magnusson shows their fear and humiliation as they are examined and have their teeth checked. Asta sees her son Egill being bought by the Pasha and Egilsson is sent to negotiate a ransom. Meanwhile she and her daughter and baby son are bought by Ali Pitterling Cilleby, a rich Moor who lives in the dazzling white city of Algiers.

In the harem, Asta is overwhelmed by the riot of colours and fine fabrics as Magnusson subtly contrasts Asta’s new life with the grey island existence she has left behind. The habits and customs of the Islamic household are viewed through Asta’s frequently astonished eyes. Food is so abundant that the excess is fed to the animals in the evening and the variety of fruits and spices are a revelation to someone who has spent most of her life surviving on fish and eggs. With the hot sun and beautiful gardens, Asta’s life in the harem takes on a dream-like quality.

Cilleby takes an interest in Asta and her Icelandic sagas, summoning her in the evening to talk while he relaxes with his coffee and pipe. Through Asta, Magnusson gives tantalising summaries of the sagas but none is told in full. This is disappointing in a novel where stories are so important. The sagas are Asta’s link to her old life, her comfort when she thinks about her husband and son and wonders if they have survived. Stories are also important to the other women in the harem, the Arabian Nights being as essential to their lives as Asta’s sagas are to her. After several years, Asta has become reconciled to her life in Algiers but when news arrives that a ransom is being paid she has to make a heartbreaking decision.

Magnusson has chosen a fascinating and little-known historical event as the starting point for her tale of surviving, and even thriving, against the odds. She adds a much-needed female perspective to Egilsson’s memoir of his journeys, providing Asta with a fully rounded personality and a curious mind to explore the new world she finds herself in. What doesn’t change, of course, is that Asta is subject to the rules and regulations of men whether she is in Iceland or Algiers.

This is an impressive debut from Magnusson who seems to have inherited her Icelandic ancestors’ talent for beguiling storytelling.