Julie Christine's Reviews > Seal Woman

Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz
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bookshelves: historical-fiction, war-conflict, european-setting-multiple-countries, read-2016

For my residency at Anam Cara on Ireland's Beara Peninsula last June, I was assigned the "Novel" room. Painted blue, with blue linens, carpet, curtains, the room was like the inside of a raindrop. A large window above the desk faced west, over looking the bay, and at that time of year, the sun drifted away on clouds of coral sometime after 11:00, headed toward Iceland.

I found Seal Woman on the shelves that lined the Novel room, shelves that groaned under the hundreds of works of fiction, classic and fluffy, familiar and, well, novel. The cover looked just like the view from my window—black rocks reaching from the water and behind them, a velvet-smooth sea stretching toward a setting sun. The story—set in WWII Germany and post-war Iceland—sounded intense and soulful and achingly beautiful, like the scenery around me. I ran out of time before I could read Seal Woman, but returning to the States, I searched until I found a copy, serendipitously signed by the author.

Solveig Eggerz researched the lives of a small group of Germans who traveled to Iceland in the late 1940s as contract laborers for Icelandic farmers. Of the group of 314 men and women, roughly half stayed past their year of service, married and settled into their new communities. Seal Woman is the author's imagining of one of those lives, Charlotte Bernstein, who left Berlin broken by grief over the loss of her husband and only child.

As the story opens, we see a woman looking into the near distance at her middle-age, a silent husband beside her, two boys growing past the boundaries of their farm. The yearning, a voiceless keening, in Charlotte is palpable from the beginning. The story's quiet tension is built on her conflicting feelings of love and despair for her present and her past. There is grace and comfort to be found in the harsh, exhausting landscape where she lives, this lonely corner of a lonely island, yet we wonder how long she will last.

Much of the novel is rendered in flashback to Berlin before and during the war. Of scant means, working as a waitress and attending art school, Charlotte falls in love with Max, a fellow artist and department store heir, and, incidentally to Charlotte, a Jew. They marry, even as brownshirts and stormtroopers goose step like automatons through Berlin and relationships—business, familial, romantic—between Aryans and Jews are declared illegal and punishable by death. Charlotte begs to leave Berlin, their situation made even more precarious with the birth of their daughter, Lena, but Max joins a resistance movement and refuses. They remain, malnourished, terrified, but defiant. The nearly fifteen-year span between Charlotte and Max's courtship and the end of the war tripped me up a bit—years passing in a sentence seemed to diminish the sense of urgency and danger—but Eggerz shows the gradual, then precipitous, descent of Berlin as Hitler gained momentum and the Third Reich rose, smashing its way to power.

By war's end, Charlotte is alone, certain her husband and daughter are dead. But with no bodies to bury, no official notice, there is no closure, only a heavy cloak of grief and guilt, and a dreadful sliver of hope that haunts her dreams. Unable to bear the rubble of her heart that is so like the rubble of a bombed-out city, she leaves for the isolation and supposed peace of a farm in Iceland.

Seal Woman is a work of extraordinary rawness and depth. Eggerz portrays Charlotte's complex psyche with solemn grace, giving us time to develop profound empathy for her as she struggles to knit her past with her present. This is not only a finely rendered work of historical fiction, it is a rich character study, and a portrait of place. Iceland works its way into Charlotte's soul, the land and sea dueling for possession of her—one bracing her like the solid comfort of her new family, the other offering the sweet release of nothingness.

I have something to tell you... Charlotte's mother-in-law encourages Charlotte to release her story, the one she has kept locked inside for nearly twenty years—how she lost her husband and daughter—before she loses herself. In a land of legends, where storytelling is a way to explain a violent and beautiful world, Charlotte at last finds her voice.

Highly recommended.

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Reading Progress

July 5, 2015 – Shelved
July 5, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
January 5, 2016 – Started Reading
January 6, 2016 –
page 99
34.38% "'She was learning that a painter did not absorb pain directly but broke it down into parts, integrating it gradually into his soul, often blending it with his own pain, then giving it back—in oil—transformed.'\n \n This is an undiscovered gem of a book!"
January 6, 2016 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
January 6, 2016 – Shelved as: war-conflict
January 6, 2016 – Shelved as: european-setting-multiple-countries
January 7, 2016 –
page 168
58.33% "'She was learning that a painter did not absorb pain directly but broke it down into parts, integrating it gradually into his soul, often blending it with his own pain, then giving it back—in oil—transformed.'\n \n This is an undiscovered gem of a book!"
January 8, 2016 – Shelved as: read-2016
January 8, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Julie Christine Also, the page count of this edition is incorrect. Once upon a time, one was able to submit corrections. Now one just has to chew one's lip in frustration.

message 2: by Solveig (new)

Solveig Thank you for your careful reading and review. Beautiful Anam Cara. I left the book there after teaching a workshop the year before your stay.

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