The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

‘It was a fine morning. That she will always remember – how lovely dawned the seventeenth day of July in the year 1627, the day the pirates came .’

Within a matter of a few days, Barbary pirates abducted some 400 people from Iceland, including 250 (almost the entire population) from the small island of Heimaey. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers, were the pastor of Heimaey, Ólafur Egilsson, his wife Ásta Thorsteinsdóttir and three of their children. The raid itself is well documented, but little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards. Women’s voices were rarely heard, their accounts of events seldom included in historical records.

In this, her first novel, Ms Magnusson has given Ásta a voice. Imagine: a heavily pregnant woman captured with her husband and two of her three children. She gives birth to her fourth child at sea. Ásta, Ólafur and their two youngest children are sold to a wealthy man in Algiers, Ali Pitterling Cilleby. Their older son Egill, is purchased by the pasha who is known to have a taste for small boys. Ásta and Ólafur are kept separately. After a while Ólafur is sent to Copenhagen to ask the Danish king (Iceland was under Danish rule) to ransom the captives.

Ásta has lost her freedom, her children, and her husband. How will she survive in this very alien culture? She is waiting to hear about the ransom, hoping to see her elder son, wanting to hold onto what she values from her own culture. Ásta has the stories, the sagas and folktales of Iceland in her head, and the opportunity to share those stories with Cilleby arises. The years pass without news from Iceland. And then, just as Ásta becomes more accustomed to her new life, news that a ransom is to be paid for some of the Icelanders is received. She is told only after the envoy has been in the city for some months.

‘She will not ask why he did not tell her this before. This is only the news some slave-woman in his house has been waiting nearly nine years to hear.’

Ásta must choose: to return to Iceland, leaving her children behind or to stay in Algiers. She doesn’t know whether her husband is still alive. She is not even sure that she wants to leave, but she feels that she must. And, for the rest of her long life she will wonder about how her life might have been had she chosen to stay.

This is a novel about survival and about the power of stories in our lives. It’s also a story about contrasting life styles and difficult choices. In Algiers, Ásta’s stories could transport her back to the Iceland of her memory, helped her bear separation from her husband and children. But the Ásta who returned to Iceland some nine years later was forever changed by her experiences in Algiers. Those stories have their own place.

‘Thus does Ásta Thorsteinsdóttir discover that there is more than one way to make a bed of stories.’

I enjoyed this novel very much, and appreciated the Author’s Note at the end which explained how Ólafur Egilsson’s manuscript (The Travels of Ólafur Egilsson) led Ms Magnusson to wonder about his wife Ásta:

‘But who was she, this woman who gave birth on a slave-ship and returned ten years later without her children?’ ‘But what happened to Ásta in Algiers and after she returned to Iceland?’

Ms Magnusson’s wondering has delivered a powerful novel. Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith