The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, 2018, 368 p, plus i p A Note about Icelandic, iv p List of Characters, i p Maps and i p Contents.

 The Sealwoman’s Gift  cover

The author is well-known (in Scotland) as a television newsreader and possibly more widely as a presenter of Songs of Praise. (Her father Magnus also made a career in television – he was the questioner on the original Mastermind – and translated various works from Icelandic to English; see The Fish Can Sing.) In this book Magnusson draws on her Icelandic heritage to tell the tale of a woman, Ásta Thorsteinsdóttir, caught up in a traumatic incident of Icelandic history, the abduction and enslavement of hundreds of Icelanders by Barbary corsairs in the mid-1600s.

The novel begins on the corsair ship taking the pregnant Ásta and the rest of her kidnapped family to Algiers. Despite her pregnancy, her defiance – in contrast to the more accommodating attitude of her husband Ólafur, a priest in the staunch Icelandic Protestant mould but who wishes to converse with his captors – fatefully takes the eye of the ship’s captain, Wahid Fleming, a man of Dutch origin. On board, and just before she gives birth she receives a cryptic piece of advice, the gift of the title, from the dying Oddrún, who had long claimed to be a sealwoman who once took off her skin to bask in the midnight sun but found it stolen when it was time to return to the sea so had to make a life for herself as an Icelander.

In Algiers Fleming sells Ásta and her family to Ali Pitterling Cilleby, with the suggestion of petitioning the King of Denmark (Iceland’s ruler at the time) for their ransom. Cilleby’s wife had hoped for a seamstress, in which regard Ásta is a disappointment. Cilleby sends Ólafur on the long journey to Copenhagen with the ransom demand, which the King refuses. Once back on Iceland, Ólafur, with the local bishop’s encouragement, sets about raising the money by community effort, via the selling of knitted socks etc.

The Icelanders in Algiers make their own accommodations with their new life. Some convert to Islam in order to make their way, others remain true to their own traditions. Even as she realises that this society, with its sights, sounds, smells, opulence and food abundance so in contrast to the harsh realities of life in Iceland, is in many ways much more civilised than her own, Ásta is anguished when her daughter, brought up among the strange foreign customs, becomes more at home with them than with her mother’s.

The ransom not forthcoming, Cilleby’s attention falls on Ásta. Inviting her to his chamber one night, he is astounded by her refusal to lie with him, which by the laws of his state he may. Her understanding, she tells him, was that she was not bought as a concubine. Moreover, she is married so cannot take another man for herself. This clash of customs and the building of the relationship between them forms the majority of the book’s largest section. Cilleby’s interest in her becomes intellectual as well as sexual as she relates the details of Icelandic sagas, in which he manages to find material to contradict her abomination of slavery. It is here that the book explicitly riffs on the tales of the Thousand and One Nights (not that Ásta is in any danger of execution, as Scheherazade was.) Yet there cannot be a meeting of minds. Both are too steeped in their respective values.

Via a Dutch intermediary, the ransom eventually arrives – for all the Icelanders, not all of whom wish to return. Cilleby offers Ásta the choice, he will turn down the money if she wishes to stay. Though torn between her children and her husband, duty wins out. Ásta’s equally long return to Iceland, via Denmark, allows Magnusson to explore other instances of human frailty and the conflict between religion and emotion. Back in Iceland Ásta fails to recognise the old man her husband has become and has to come to terms with how her experiences have changed her.

This novel is many-layered; it is among other things a story about stories, about love and loss, the ties that bind, and the barriers between cultures. Magnusson’s writing is assured and even her minor characters have depth. This novel is very good indeed.

Pedant’s corner:- span (x 2, spun,) focussed (focused,) maws (x 2, a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) smoothes (smooths.)

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