With one foot in the world of myth and saga and the other based in a true historic event, The Sealwoman’s Gift should have been a great book. Sadly, it is not quite so good as I expected. It has an interesting beginning and a touching end but tends to drag sometimes in the middle.
One morning in 1627, Oddrún comes to Ásta, saying she’s had a vision of men crossing their island to attack them. However, Oddrún thinks she’s a sealwoman and only one of her visions has been known to come true, so no one pays attention. Shortly thereafter, their small Westman Island, part of Iceland, is attacked by Barbary pirates. Almost everyone is killed or enslaved.
This is Sally Magnusson’s imagining of a true event the remains one of the most significant in Icelandic history. Out of a population of about 40,000, many were killed and 400 taken. Among those taken are Ásta and her husband, the minister Ólafur, and all but one of their children. Ásta, hugely pregnant, begins giving birth on the ship, and one of my complaints is that, with all the flashbacks and background information, it takes from chapter one until the end of chapter five before she actually has the baby. I have to say that this seemed interminable, and Magnusson could have figured out a better way to handle the background information. Finally, they arrive in Algiers.
Ásta and Ólafur and two of their children are bought by a powerful trader named Cilleby, while their oldest son Egill, is purchased by the Pasha and never heard from again. Ólafur is surprised to be given no duties, but after a few months Cilleby dispatches him with a safe passage back to Denmark to try to obtain ransom for Denmark’s Icelandic citizens.
Ásta, who has been a dreamy woman with a love of Icelandic sagas, remains as a seamstress, trying to bring up her remaining two children and listening to the stories told in the evening by members of the harem.
During this period, Magnusson might have tried to more fully imagine life in Algiers, but this world is not fully realized. Or, she could have stuck with Ólafur on his journey back to Denmark and in his years of fund raising to free the captives. But she is more interested in Ásta and has her develop a relationship with Cilleby. I found this the least likely and least interesting part of the book.
Still, I was glad I finished the book, because the story eventually ends in Iceland, which Magnusson depicts more convincingly. The ending was touching and redeemed the novel quite a bit.