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The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Two Roads

Publication Date: 14th June 2018

Review Date: 10th March 2020


1627. In a notorious historical event, pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted 400 people into slavery in Algiers. Among them a pastor, his wife, and their children. In her acclaimed debut novel Sally Magnusson imagines what history does not record: the experience of Asta, the pastor's wife, as she faces her losses with the one thing left to her - the stories from home - and forges an ambiguous bond with the man who bought her. Uplifting, moving, and sharply witty, The Sealwoman's Gift speaks across centuries and oceans about loss, love, resilience and redemption.

My Review

During the 1600s Turkish pirates captured many white European Christians, either for use as slaves or holding them to ransom for monetary reward. Sally Magnusson draws on this historical fact, alongside quotations from the memoirs of Reverend Olafur Egilsson, and merges with her own imagination to create a fictionalised third-person narrative that mostly focusses on the perspective of Olafur’s real-life young wife, Asta.

With a large cast of characters, some with similar sounding names, it did take a while to work out who was who; however, once I’d worked that out, I became drawn into the novel. Whilst Asta’s heart-breaking story is set during the 17th century, what she endures as a wife, mother, and lover, encapsulates what it is to be human irrespective of time and place. The narrative does have a literary feel to it, where vivid description of landscape is often used in a metaphorical way; and the geographical distance that Asta travels can also be compared to her journey of self-discovery. As such, the pacing is slow at times, giving the reader time to psychologically immerse themselves into the traumatic events Asta experiences.

Storytelling lies at the heart of the novel, where Asta’s place is to entertain her master, Cilleby, with folk stories from her homeland. These stories also act as metaphors as Asta struggles with her own inner demons as she leaves one life behind and becomes accustomed to a new one. The power of story is also used as a means of escape, something which Asta passes on to her children ‘let us go inside a story and shut the door’. I absolutely loved this line, and its power as a means of escape is reiterated as Asta is forced with an impossible decision as the novel reaches its climax.

About the Author

Sally Magnusson is the eldest daughter of the Icelandic journalist and historian Magnus Magnusson and the Scottish newspaper journalist Mamie Baird. She grew up in and around Glasgow in houses that were always filled with stories: the journalistic variety in which both parents were continually engaged; those hilariously told by her mother about her early life in working class Rutherglen; and those told by Magnus straight from the medieval Icelandic sagas which he spent much of her childhood translating from Old Norse into English. It's probably little wonder that she ended up a newspaper reporter and then a broadcast journalist herself, delighting in fashioning other people's experiences (and sometimes her own) into articles, programmes and non-fiction books. THE SEALWOMAN'S GIFT is her debut novel.

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