The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson


I downloaded this in the hope that I’d be going to Iceland this summer. The way things are, I may not be going any further than the Iceland supermarket in the precinct; but at least we’ve still got books, and this is a very good one. I’ve always associated the seal people stories with the Scottish Isles, but they’re also to be found in Iceland and other Scandinavian counties, which says something interesting about the Viking heritage of parts of the British Isles. This is based on a true story, the “Turkish Abductions” of 1627, in which Barbary pirates kidnapped and enslaved around 400 people from Iceland. It’s thought that over a million people were taken in Barbary slave raids on ships and coastal areas across Europe, from the 16th century to the 19th century. This one’s particularly remembered as the loss of 400 people out of Iceland’s total population of only 60,000 had such a big impact.

The main character, Asta Thorsteinsdottir, did exist, as did many of the other characters in the book. Her husband, Olafur Egilsson, was released so that he could go to Copenhagen to plead with the King of Denmark to ransom the captives. Only 27 of them, one of whom was Asta, returned to Iceland. That wasn’t until 1638, and this book imagines what her life may have been like in the meantime, as people were forced to try to adapt to a new way of life, their treatment dependent on who’d bought them, saw their children raised in a different culture, and, if they did go home, struggled to settle back into what was left of their old lives. It’s a historical novel, not a fantasy novel, but there are a lot of references to both the Icelandic sagas and the tales of Scheherazade, and the point is made that there are very few accounts of the time written by women.

The descriptions of both Iceland and Algeria are superb, and it’s a fascinating book (and a sensible story, not one of those lurid Orientalist things about glamorous women being carried off to sultans’ harems, like that awful film in the ’80s!) about a subject which affected much of Europe and North Africa but is rarely spoken about any more.

The pirate who led the raid was Dutch, and Asta’s fictional master in Algeria was half-Dutch, and that was quite typical of what happened. People “went native” because it gave them better opportunities. Asta was portrayed as refusing to convert from Lutheranism to Islam, but one of her friends converted and married a local man, and the son of another friend converted and became a pirate. Her eldest son was taken away as soon as they arrived. Her two younger children were bought with her, but her daughter was later sent to join the sultan’s harem in Constantinople (the Barbary states being part of the Ottoman Empire), and both she and the younger son were brought up as Muslims. They weren’t unhappy with that, having never really known anything else.  The real fate of Asta’s children isn’t actually known, but it is known that they didn’t return to Iceland with her.

They were all shown as being reasonably well-treated, despite being slaves. That obviously would depend on the whims of their individual owners, and Sally Magnusson’s chosen to depict quite a kindly owner – although there’s one horrific episode in which Asta is abducted and raped by another man, and we also hear of the ill-treatment of some of her friends.

It did stray into the realms of fairy tales in that Cilleby, Asta’s master (the name was supposed to have come from his Dutch father, but it sounded more Yorkshire than Dutch to me!), who’d bought her to be a sewing maid, kept asking for her to be brought to him every night … so that she could tell him the Icelandic sagas. A very definite nod to Scheherazade there, and we also saw how the women in the harem told each other Arabian Nights stories. “The sealwoman”, despite the title of the book, didn’t feature very much: she was an old lady who believed in the legends of people being descended from seals, but she died early on. The idea seemed to be that sealwomen had left their homes in the sea and become trapped on land, and had to adapt as best they could, and that that was what the Icelandic slaves in Algeria were doing. There was also a running theme of an elfman, one of the huldufolk (hidden people) who are said to live hidden lives in Iceland (and the Faroe Islands) but can choose to make themselves visible to humans.

The sealwoman warned Asta not be like Gudrun in Osvifrsdottir in the Laexdala saga, who got involved with two men.  It’s not very clear why she would have done that when they’d only just been abducted, TBH, but, inevitably, Asta and Cilleby became romantically involved.  But, when, eventually, the King of Denmark agreed to ransom any Icelanders who wanted to return home, Asta made the decision to go, even though it meant being parted from her children … but the chances were that she’d never see them, at least the oldest two, again anyway.  She then found it very hard to settle back into her old life, after nine years away and everything that had happened.

But she had to try to adapt and make the most of things, because that’s all you can do.  When this book was first published, people said that lessons could be drawn from it in terms of the damage that slavery does to cultures and communities, and also for refugees settling into new countries.  Now, I feel as if I’m trying to draw lessons from it about how you cope if you’re unable to go out and about as you please (obviously I am not comparing lockdown/self-isolation to slavery, but hopefully anyone reading this will know what I mean!), and what a great help stories and story-telling can be.  Sometimes, you find yourself forced to adapt to circumstances you could never have imagined, and that’s happening to all of us at the moment.  Stay safe and well xxx.  And, if you’re looking for a book to read, give this a go!

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent


An Australian teenager goes to an Icelandic fishing village on an exchange trip, and becomes fascinated by the story of a woman executed for murder in 1830.  A few years later, she writes a novel about the subject, and it becomes an international best-seller and is set to be made into a Hollywood film starring an Oscar-winning actress.  No, that’s not a work of fiction – it’s the true story of a work of fiction.  Well, a work of fiction based on another true story, that of Agnes Magnusdottir, a servant woman beheaded for her role in the murders of two men, in what seems to have been a tale of complicated romantic entanglements.  Instead of being held in prison in the months leading up to her execution, she was billeted on an ordinary family, with a young pastor detailed to act as her spiritual advisor; and this book shows that time, with Agnes sharing the story of her life and her account of the murders with those around her.  Although Agnes’s story is very well-known in Iceland, it isn’t elsewhere – but this book is changing that.  It’s very, very well-written, an extremely impressive achievement for a debut novelist.

Agnes is a well-known figure in Iceland, as I’ve said; but I have to admit that I’d never heard of her until I came across this book.  So, what’s the story?  A farm owner and his guest were found murdered.  His two female servants and a young man were arrested and convicted.  One of the women, Sigga, was sent to prison.  The other woman, Agnes, and the man, Fredrik, were executed – the last people ever to be executed in Iceland.  It transpired that the farm owner had been having a longstanding affair with a married woman, but had also been having affairs with both Agnes and Sigga, and that Sigga had also been involved with Fredrik!   No-one’s sure exactly what happened – but the myths surrounding the event tend to blame Agnes, the older woman, rather than either the man or the younger, prettier woman.

In this book, we hear Agnes’s story.  Yes, it’s a sob story – illegitimate child, not even 100% sure who her father was, abandoned by her mother, lived with foster parents for a while but then her foster mother died, treated badly by men, fell in love with the farm owner only to have to accept that he was using her.  Yes, it’s about class.  Yes, it’s about gender.  But it’s not told as the tale of a victim.  It’s just an explanation of a life, of the way things were at a time and a place in history.  When we get to the murders, it’s Fredrik who’s seen as primarily responsible, not Agnes, but that’s not the author’s invention, only the story that Agnes and Sigga told at the time.  But they were not believed.

The other characters are fascinating too.  The young, inexperienced pastor, who’s drawn in by Agnes and forms an attachment to her.  And the family with whom she’s living – they’re obviously not very pleased at being forced to house a murderess, but she becomes part of the household and they develop relationships with her.  She’s a good worker, and she has medical skills too.  It could all have been so different.

It’s very insular.  There are some descriptions of the Icelandic countryside, but practically the entire story is told at the farm where Agnes is staying.  It jumps from Agnes’s story, told in the first person, to the viewpoints of the lady of the house, Margret, and the pastor, but it’s all centred on Agnes.  She carries the story brilliantly, but the book’s about the descriptions as much as the characters.  The sights, the sounds, the smells.  The social history’s fascinating too, as we learn about farm life, and indeed about the criminal justice system of the time.

And it draws you in.  The reader knows that there isn’t going to be a last-minute reprieve for Agnes, so it’s not a conventional thriller, or crime novel.  It’s history.  We know what’s going to happen.  But it’s not an epic, it’s not a saga, it’s not the history of a nation – it’s the history of one fairly minor individual.  And yet there are so many stories of fairly minor individuals, and they grip us, but usually that’s because they’re stories which we’ve grown up with.  In this case, the story gripped a young woman from the other side of the world – and now, thanks to her it’s gripped millions of readers right across the world.  This isn’t my usual sort of book, but it really was a fascinating read.