Book review: The Sealwoman's Gift, by Sally Magnusson

Sally Magnusson's wonderfully accomplished first novel is an enthralling mixture of recovered history and the imagining of lost lives. It's a delightful piece of storytelling which is also a story about telling stories.

Sally Magnusson PIC: Jane Barlow
Sally Magnusson PIC: Jane Barlow

In 1627 pirates from Algiers raided the coast of Iceland and carried off 400 people – men, women and children – two-thirds of them from a small island. The captives included the island’s Lutheran minister, Olafur, his pregnant wife Asta and their two small children. All were destined for the slave market in Algiers. The Barbary pirates had been the curse of the Mediterranean for centuries, raiding villages in Italy, France and Spain in search of slaves. They were a motley bunch – the admiral and the captain of the ship carrying Olafur and Asta were Dutch by birth, converted to Islam.

The poor, harsh Iceland they are leaving and the horrific voyage, on which Asta gives birth, are both compellingly described, the contrast with the light and beauty of Algiers dramatic. Slave markets are no respecters of families. Their young son, a pretty boy, is quickly snapped up by the province’s Ottoman governor. The coarse Dutch captain persuades a Moor and member of the ruling council, Cilleby, to buy Asta and her little daughter. The parson, he says, can be sent back to Denmark to get the king to offer a ransom for his Icelandic subjects; it’s an easy way of making money, though it does take time. In fact it will take eight years during which a strange relationship between the slave Asta and her master, Cilleby, will develop.

It is based first on her pride, her self-esteem, which matches his – to his original stupefaction; then on her ability to tell stories. Her stories are drawn from the Icelandic Sagas, and they puzzle and fascinate him, as does Asta, for he has never met such an independently-minded woman. Their developing relationship, never easy – for neither can ever quite forget that she is his property, to be disposed of as he thinks fit – is beautifully and intelligently portrayed. Both are changed by it, and who knows how much further it might have gone, if the day didn’t at last come when a Dutch agent, acting on behalf of the king of Denmark, at last arrives, nine years after the raid, with the ransom money? But does Asta still want to return home? To leave Cilleby? Mightn’t she be best to settle for what she has, like her nephew Jon, who has converted to Islam and will himself become a corsair? Only the news that her elderly husband is still alive persuades her to come home. When many months later she arrives, he is dismayed to find that she is alone, that their two sons and daughter have been left in the Muslim world.

One of the best of the many fine things in this remarkable novel is the manner in which Asta’s return home is treated. It is now her own island which seems to her foreign, the conditions of life there squalid and filthy in comparison with the order and beauty she has come to know and appreciate in Algiers; it’s not merely the absence of sunshine that is depressing, but the lack of hot water in which to wash, and the dull diet without fruit. For months she and Olafur can scarcely communicate and drift even further apart; it is only when she reads his account of his own voyage home and the rejection he then received from the king, that her mood softens and reconciliation becomes possible.

One is inclined in a brief review to concentrate on the novel’s themes, and this is fair enough, for they are interesting, oddly charming and yet also often disconcerting. But for many it may be Sally Magnusson’s descriptive skill, and her ability to capture the feeling of place and a distant time, which are most delightful. In short, this is the best sort of historical novel. It respects the past and brings it alive. It is alert to ethical and cultural differences. It shows that people in the past often thought differently from us and held to different beliefs, while at the same time it reminds us that they experienced the same emotions.

The Sealwoman’s Gift, by Sally Magnusson, Two Roads, 362pp, £16.99