Review: The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

If you’re looking for books set in Iceland, this is one you should definitely consider. I picked this one up as part of The Uncorked Librarian’s 2020 reading challenge and had the prompt not being ‘ books based in Iceland,’ I doubt I ever would have given it a second glance.

I’m glad I did though because this book is full of rich history, traditional sagas, and a mix of cultures.

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

Disclosure: I am part of an affiliate program which means that I may earn a small commission if you purchase through my affiliate links at no additional cost to you.

From Iceland to Algiers

In 1627 on a tiny Icelandic island, Barbary pirates kidnapped around 250 people to sell as slaves in Algiers. Among those was the island pastor, Ólafur, his wife, Ásta, and their three children.

Told from the eyes of Ásta, this vivid retelling imagines how life would have been for the pastor’s wife. Separated from her son and husband, Ásta struggles to adapt to her loss of freedom and sudden captivity. To keep her grounded, she relays the folk tales of her homeland and through these, starts to connect with the other women living in her new home. She discovers a new culture and learns to follow their customs which differ greatly to her own traditions.

As many years pass, she settles into her new life and grows accustomed to this way of living. Ólafur, having been sent north to try and raise a ransom to release the captives, is still fighting to bring her home. But to Ásta, ‘home’ might not mean the same as it does to her husband. Have his efforts been in vain? Or can he still save his wife?

It’s all about the scenery

One thing the author does brilliantly is set the scene. Her words come to life, evoking quite a number of feelings: sea-sickness from the choppy waves on the very long boat journey, the despair that the people felt when the pirates roughly abducted them, disbelief at emerging into a stifling, bustling African country so unlike dreary and desolate Iceland. I felt Ásta’s anguish at losing her family, the dilemmas she faced as a slave, and her uncertainties in faith. Credit to the author for all the research she clearly did. Add to that the sagas and stories from different cultures which added a whole other layer.

A new perspective

Much of what happened during this era was thanks to Ólafur Egilsson who documented his journey as both a captive and traveller. In 2016, his travels were published, alongside a series of letters and historical background into Iceland and Algiers during the 17th Century. Rather than retell Ólafur’s story, the author wanted to give Anna a voice which I thought was an interesting angle. I had no prior knowledge in these events but I’m not intrigued to read Ólafur’s side.

Where are the missing stars?

As much as I enjoyed my first Icelandic novel, there were a couple of things I would have liked to see done differently.

  • Plot and narrative – 3.3
    The story as a whole was compelling and captivating, more so because it was based on true events. However, there were bits I thought were slow at times (such as on the boat and during some of the sagas). I wasn’t always desperate to keep turning the pages.
  • Writing style and readability – 2.2
    This was where the book really lacked for me. Firstly, the account is predominantly from Ásta’s eyes but at times, it switches to other perspectives (Ólafur, Cilleby, Magnús, Kifft, etc.). Although it’s a great insight to hear from other characters, it made the book confusing and less authentic. If the author wanted to go down this route, she could have labelled each chapter with the name of the person narrating, just to be clear. I also found parts that weren’t written to standard (such as missing commas) – this is a really tiny thing but it affects the way I read a sentence and can cause jarring when I have to go back and reread it as intended.
  • Characters – 3.2
    There were a few too many characters for me to get my head around, especially with the Icelandic names. The fact the author had to include a glossary of characters was a testament that there were perhaps too many. However, this glossary was a godsend.
  • Diverse themes – 4.5
    Icelandic sagas, a vibrant history, slave-trade, a mix of cultures, and pirates – diversity box ticked.
  • Ending – 4.3
    I was pleased with the way the book ended – it wasn’t what I expected but I thought it retained the realism and showed the difficulties people face over life-changing decisions.

Overall rating: 3.5

Overview

Genre: Historical fiction
Published: 8 February 2018 by Two Roads
Pages: 360 (hardback)
About the author: Sally lives in Glasgow where she was raised by journalist parents who loved to share stories. Her Icelandic father told her tales from the traditional sagas and she developed a strong connection to his homeland. Sally studied English Literature and Language at the University of Edinburgh and soon became a journalist herself. The Sealwoman’s Gift was her first adult novel.

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