There’s something so wonderful about being wholly drawn into a richly imagined historical novel that both illuminates a somewhat forgotten or not-widely-known period of history and gives voice to people who are only glancingly referred to in the history books. Sally Magnusson does all this in her debut novel “The Sealwoman’s Gift” which recounts the abduction of over four hundred Icelandic citizens from their homes in the year 1627 by pirates from Morocco and Algeria. These prisoners were sold into slavery and a ransom for their release wasn’t obtained until several years later – by which point many of those abducted had either died, been irretrievably lost or converted/integrated into life along the Barbary Coast. Copies still exist of a famous account of these abductions written by a Reverend who was captured himself, but Magnusson focuses her novel more on the journey and inner-struggles of his wife Ásta. It’s noted how “others may have written their own accounts of captivity. Men, of course. Does it matter that nobody will know how it was to be a woman?” In doing so, this novel brilliantly engages with many of the heartrending conflicts a woman in Ásta’s position must have faced while also powerfully illuminating the cultural importance of storytelling and the complicated dynamics of love.
A number of years ago I visited Iceland and took a road trip around the country. It’s such a bizarre alien-like landscape with its flat volcanic-soil and coastal shores dotted with black & white puffins and their colourful beaks. I admired how the stark beauty and bleakness of this striking environment is powerfully evoked in this novel. But the author also brings to life the culture and daily life of its people from the production of Skyr (a yogurt-like foodstuff traditionally made from sheep’s milk) to the use of puffin bones to keep the kitchen fires going or the frequent retelling of Icelandic Sagas which are such a rich part of the country’s oral tradition. I also got such a strong sense of how the country basically operates as one small hardworking community. As Magnusson notes, it’s easy to empathize with how the kidnapping of over 400 citizens back in the 1600s would deeply traumatize the entirety of this sparsely-populated country. The story also conveys what an enormous culture shock it’d be for these very isolated Christian people who were abducted to suddenly be engulfed in the brightly-coloured multi-national predominantly-Muslim community of Algiers.
I’ve always been fascinated by the psychological implications of a diaspora, especially when people are forcibly removed from their native homeland or are forced to leave because of severe problems in their birth country. The real heart of this novel lies in Ásta’s dilemma as she’s suddenly left on her own in Algiers with a daughter and an infant son. Her rambunctious husband Ólafur is swiftly used as a negotiator between the Ottoman Empire that was seeking ransom for these slaves and the king of Denmark (because Iceland was under Danish rule). Throughout the many years of their separation Ásta is torn between maintaining her faith in their rescue and building a new life in this foreign land. This includes conflicted feelings about religion, loyalty to family and maintaining her own sense of cultural identity. There comes a point when the workings of time create a certain psychological distance from her homeland. Her existence beforehand becomes idealized and nostalgia takes on a life of its own: “memory is like that, always so eager to aid you in missing what you can no longer have and forgetting the rest.” Magnusson writes poignantly about how story-telling is a means of psychological escape from the horrors of reality as well as a way of maintaining a connection with one’s own culture and personal genealogical history.
The author also weaves into her story two somewhat fantastical elements and characters who tread the border between myth and reality. One is an eccentric old woman who has visions and believes herself to be a seal that has lost its skin and is consequently stranded on land in the shape of a woman. Another is an elf from the legends Ásta heard in her youth. At first I thought this later character was merely an eccentric quirk within the story or simply a fanciful notion within Ásta’s imagination, but his inclusion comes to powerfully represent her character’s inner conflict, her stymied desires and a representation of her own “otherness” as someone that doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere. These characters also show the way that our daily lives are composed of both the hard fact of reality and our subjective experience of the world.
As I neared the end of reading this tale it became something much more for me than simply a vividly-imagined historical novel, but a personally touching meditation on the choices we’re forced to make in life. Over the years we’re inevitably presented with crossroads where we must choose to take one path or another and it’s difficult not to be consumed with grief for the potential joys we’ve had to sacrifice in making these hard decisions. But Magnusson writes how “we cannot live in two worlds. And in lamenting too long what belongs in the other we bring upon ourselves and others only destruction.” In dramatically bringing to life Ásta’s story she sympathetically presents a fully rounded understanding of this turmoil and the importance of fostering the lives we’ve chosen. “The Sealwoman’s Gift” also powerfully shows the numerous and complicated repercussions of how the evil industry of slavery caused rifts in communities which have never been and can never be repaired.