What’s it all about?:
In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted some 400 of its people, including 250 from a tiny island off the mainland. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers were the island pastor, his wife and their three children. Although the raid itself is well documented, little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent.
In this brilliant reimagining, Sally Magnusson gives a voice to Ásta, the pastor’s wife. Enslaved in an alien Arab culture Ásta meets the loss of both her freedom and her children with the one thing she has brought from home: the stories in her head. Steeped in the sagas and folk tales of her northern homeland, she finds herself experiencing not just the separations and agonies of captivity, but the reassessments that come in any age when intelligent eyes are opened to other lives, other cultures and other kinds of loving.
The Sealwoman’s Gift is about the eternal power of storytelling to help us survive. The novel is full of stories – Icelandic ones told to fend off a slave-owner’s advances, Arabian ones to help an old man die. And there are others, too: the stories we tell ourselves to protect our minds from what cannot otherwise be borne, the stories we need to make us happy.
What did I think?:
The Sealwoman’s Gift had been on my radar for a little while after I saw it being advertised as a highly anticipated read for this year from some of my favourite book-tubers. I mean, that gorgeous cover is enough to draw you in and make you want to read it, right? Then when I found out that it was a re-imagining of an actual historical event that happened in Iceland in the 17th century which tore apart countless families, I knew it was something I had to get my hands on. I am trying to be good at the moment with a book-buying ban and a determination not to buy hardbacks on the cards, so I was delighted when Two Roads Publishers via Book Bridgr sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. It came at a time when I really needed cheering up so a huge thank you to them. Generally, I found this novel to be a solid, beautifully written story that at points, was comparable to being told an old folk-tale. Of course, the fact that this event actually occurred makes this tale all the more intriguing and I thoroughly enjoyed Sally Magnusson’s fictional version of it that was quite obviously extensively researched.
Sally Magnusson, author of The Sealwoman’s Gift.
The event I’m referring to is one many people may not be overly familiar with. It happened in 1627 and involved a host of pirates who attacked the coast of Iceland, removing many men, women and children from the nearest towns, sailing them back to Algiers and selling them all into slavery. We follow one woman in particular, Ásta, who is pregnant at the time of the raid and is captured along with her husband, Ólafur and most of her children. Ásta ends up being separated from her husband and this is the story of how she copes in the house she is sold into, her relationship with her children and her absent husband and especially, how she changes as a person when she is wrenched away from a much simpler life and everything she has ever known.
The beautiful Westman Islands, mentioned by Ásta in the novel.
I always worry when I fall in love with a book’s cover that the inside won’t match the outside, so as to speak. Luckily, I had no worries on this account with The Sealwoman’s Gift. I was absolutely captivated by Ásta’s tale and the people that she met along the way, particularly in Algiers where the course of her life changes forever. I have to admit to being slightly nervous when I saw the cast of characters in the front of the novel, especially the Icelandic names which I’m not too familiar with. However, there was no need to panic, the book is written in such a way that you can easily get your head round who is who in a very short amount of time. I also loved the inclusion and translation of some common Icelandic words which just added to the other-wordly, beautifully alien and very unique feel of this story.
This isn’t just a narrative that re-hashes a moment in history, this is also a story about the relationships between families and between husband and wife and how they are altered when one or both of the parties goes through a life changing event, experiencing new things outside their humdrum, ordinary existence and developing into a different person as a result. The author uses one character in the novel to bring a folk/fairy-tale element to the proceedings when Ásta is warned about her future by one of the more superstitious islanders. I loved how this was incorporated into the tale and it gave the reader something to look back on and analyse when our female lead’s life takes a more dramatic turn.
This is a debut novel that drops you right into Iceland’s past authentically and evocatively and having been to Iceland myself, I could picture everything in full, glorious detail. I’ll certainly be watching out for what Sally Magnusson does next, her writing is too gorgeous to miss out on.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):