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The Sealwoman's Gift by Sally Magnusson - Review

Wednesday, May 5, 2021


This book was the April choice for my book club, and I wasn't looking forward to it at all because it just didn't seem like my kind of thing at all. But I bought it on eBay for a few quid and decided to pick it up at the end of March. This was well in time for the meeting, which is the third Wednesday of April, but meant that if I didn't like it I could pass the book on to someone else in my group. 

I ended up loving it. It WASN'T my kind of thing at all but I really liked it. 

It's about a true thing that happened in the 1620s - ships of Turkish pirates arrived on Iceland's coastline and took more than four hundred Icelanders as captives and put them in ships to take them to Algiers, on North Africa's coastline. One of the captives, a priest called Olafur Egilsson, managed to return to Iceland after petitioning the king of Denmark, Christian IV, to pay the ransom of other captives. Christian refused, but in 1637 thirty four captives did manage to return to Iceland. The priest's wife, Asta, was among them.

(I can't do the accents that the Icelandic language has on some letters, and I'm really sorry about that)

So building off what was true, Sally Magnusson has imagined the life of Asta. At the beginning of the book she is pregnant with her fourth child - her eldest is on a different island and is married, and her second and third children live with her and Olafur. Olafur is older than her and has children from his first marriage. The Barbary pirates arrive on the island, ambushing the inhabitants. They kill some people on sight and take Olafur's entire family on to their boat. While on the month long trip from Iceland to Algiers, Asta gives birth to her son, who she and Olafur name Jon. 

In Algiers, their elder son Egill is taken to the pasha's palace immediately. Everyone else is taken to the house of Ali Pitterling Cilleby, a Moorish man who has a harem and two wives. Olafur is soon freed to go back to Denmark to ask for the ransom of his family and others, but the other three are left there. Asta has an easier life than in cold, damp, poverty stricken Iceland, but she is not free. Her children are not free. She fears them converting to Islam and that their souls will not be welcome in Christian heaven. She is summoned to Cilleby's bedroom and there, she begins to tell him sagas and stories from her homeland. 

The book is set so long ago but it feels so modern. I could picture the houses perfectly; I could smell the perfume in Algiers and the stench of the ship. I felt for Asta so much and wanted her to make the best choices. I loved hearing about this event in history and how truth was mixed with the fiction. I liked the sagas she told. I like her relationship with her children and with Olafur. I'm giving this five out of five because it's so good.

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