Claire McAlpine's Reviews > The Sealwoman's Gift

The Sealwoman's Gift by Sally Magnusson
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Apr 14, 2018

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, historical-fiction, icelandic-literature

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.'


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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Reading Progress

March 9, 2018 – Shelved
March 9, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
March 9, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
March 9, 2018 – Shelved as: fiction
March 9, 2018 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
April 4, 2018 – Started Reading
April 6, 2018 –
page 40
10.42% "Looking forward to indulging this promising read.
Pirates use a different strategy to fool Icelander's into thinking they're a friendly ship, then surprise them by attacking from inland having moored on the opposite side of the small island off the mainland After killing some, they abduct 400 people and sail off for a currently unknown destination."
April 7, 2018 –
page 85
22.14% "GREY Jul - Aug 1627
These pages include the abduction and the period onboard the pirate ship, with the islanders reflecting on their recent past, Asta remembers being sent by her Aunt Margrét & Uncle Jon to housekeep for the priest Olafur, now she gives birth to their third child on the slave ship, Oddrun, the sealwoman prophesises, few have ever listened but now they do as she croaks her last words before her return"
April 9, 2018 –
page 120
31.25%
April 10, 2018 –
page 150
39.06% "3 years later, following the fate of Asta and her husband, at a point where things seem about to change for her. She has been listening to the women of the harem tell their stories, her master scorns her interest in them:
'Persian nonsense. Pay no attention. There are better stories by far.'
'Indeed there are. And it's Icelanders who tell them.' she responds."
April 14, 2018 –
page 269
70.05% "WHITE
August 1627 - June 1636
Asta lives with the 2 wives in the harem, with her son Jon until he is sent upstairs, to be with the other boys, tuned to the local culture and way of life
Asta is invited into Cilleby's room, tells him Icelandic tales, finishing each one at a moment that will ensure he invites her back"
April 14, 2018 – Shelved as: icelandic-literature
April 14, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Warwick (new)

Warwick poverty-stricken conservative Christian Icelanders arriving in the warm, lush climate of Algiers

Sold! I love reading well thought-out descriptions of this kind of culture clash.


message 2: by Markus (new) - added it

Markus I like your review, Claire. I also like the theme of the story and will place it on my list, it seems an interesting book. Thanks.


Claire McAlpine Warwick wrote: "poverty-stricken conservative Christian Icelanders arriving in the warm, lush climate of Algiers

Sold! I love reading well thought-out descriptions of this kind of culture clash."


It's an interesting clash of cultures, especially given the richness of the culture they're sold into and the relative ease of life compared to where they've come from and also the similarity in their story telling culture.

I would have liked to see the author embrace more the Algerian female characters, I think there is more to explore and learn there, for the reader to appreciate the dual perspectives and get more of an insight into their way of life.


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