The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson
Published by Two Roads, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
In The Sealwoman’s Gift, Sally Magnusson imagines what life may have been like for the real-life Icelanders who were seized by Barbary pirates in the early 1600s and sold into slavery in Algiers. Having evidently put a lot of heart into researching the subject, she focusses primarily on the case of a pastor and his family. Though his records tell us that he would reunite with his wife, Ásta, after ten years apart, next to nothing is known of what she and their children went through in that time. This book is an imagined version of those years.
The theme that drew me to this the most, and one I enjoyed very much, is the power of storytelling. The richness of Iceland’s sagas and folk tales is the cultural link that provides comfort and keeps Ásta connected to her homeland. Beyond that, the book also explores the kind of stories we tell ourselves to keep hope alive, when the truth may be too painful to face up to.
The novel is split between two main settings: the cold, harsh terrain of rural Iceland, and the decadent, sweltering palaces of Algiers. Both are captured with equal fervour, Magnusson’s evocative prose painting vivid pictures in the mind’s eye. The disparate nature of the settings is reflected in the culture clash Ásta and the others experience. When forced to adopt a new religion on top of their whole new way of living, the very nature of what they believe and what they truly want from life is called into question. Sometimes the line between freedom and captivity can start to blur, and the confusion of this is presented very effectively.
I really appreciate that Magnusson chose to make Ásta the focus of the narrative. In historical records, she and most of the other women affected are referred to only as the wives of their respective husbands. Here, Magnusson gives a voice to a woman who outwardly had no agency, and reflects on what it really meant to always long for something more.
Given all these highlights, why the middling rating? The truth is, I went into this with very high expectations. Historical fiction set partly in Iceland that explores female agency and the power of storytelling? That could not be more firmly in my wheelhouse if it tried. The fact that this is a good novel, when I was hoping for an excellent one, is arguably not the book’s fault.
However, I do think it has its specific faults. Namely, the uneven pacing. I loved the book’s first and final quarters, but I have to concede that the lengthy mid-section dragged somewhat. Some events and ideas are explored ad nauseam, spread across several chapters. In other instances, whole years are skipped over in a mere paragraph. This felt odd to me, and stopped me from ever feeling fully invested in the characters’ turmoil. Because of this, several of the emotional beats just didn’t hit as hard as they should. It’s tricky to pinpoint more precisely than that, but something was always just stopping me from being fully hooked, no matter how much I appreciated the book’s merits.
All that said, this is a beautifully written novel that adds a big dose of humanity (and just a little dash of whimsy) to a forgotten part of history. With a little more oomph, perhaps it could have been the new favourite I was hoping for.
If you fancy giving The Sealwoman’s Gift a go, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!