The Sealwoman’s Gift, by Sally Magnusson
Published by Two Roads, 14th June 2018
Genres: Historical fiction
Source: Borrowed (library)
Trigger warnings: sexual assault
In 1627, Barbary pirates raided the shores of Iceland and captured over 400 of its people, including 250 from a small island. Among that number were the island’s pastor, his pregnant wife and their three children. Although the raid is well-known, the fate of the captives, the women and children, in particular, is not.
Ásta, wife and niece to Lutheran Icelandic pastors, finds herself ripped from her quiet life on a small island, sees her friends and neighbours killed around her and is forced onto a stinking ship. To add to her hardships, Ásta gives birth on the slave ship, on the way to her uncertain future. Upon reaching Algiers, Ásta is bought by a wealthy man and set to work in his house. Ásta deals with the loss of her freedom and her children by escaping into the stories of her homeland.
I love an imaginative retelling of a little-known historical event, and I really enjoyed this one. The focus on the unknown fate of a woman in history is one of my favourite tropes and I just love to imagine what their lives would have been like. The author does an incredible job of setting the scene, both in Iceland and Algiers. I found myself transported to the windy cliffs of the island, and to the bustling white city.
This is also a story about stories. The stories which enabled Ásta to escape from her new reality, dramatic and heroic sagas from her homeland. But also, the new stories to which she is exposed, myths and legends from this strange land. And finally, the stories that we have to tell ourselves to get through difficult situations. Separated from her husband and children, Ásta tells herself stories of what their lives must be like now, as a means to cope.
I loved reading about all the sagas and myths, and I also loved the inclusion of several letters throughout the text. Ásta writes to her husband, even with very little hope that he will ever receive the letter because that is her only means of communicating with him.
Overall, this is a beautiful work of fiction, built on the barest of facts about a woman from long ago. I would definitely recommend it to any fans of historical fiction and I will be interested to read more from Sally Magnusson in the future.
My rating: 4/5