?

Log in

No account? Create an account
 
 
01 March 2018 @ 09:03 am
Review of The Sealwoman's Gift by Sally Magnusson, pub. Two Roads, 2018-02-17  
First of all, this is not another selkie tale. I feel bound to stress this because the title nearly put me off – the seal-woman folk motif has been so over-used in poems and novels as to be boringly predictable and I'm fed up with it.

In fact it is a fictionalised account of the 1627 slave-raid on Heimaey, Iceland, which netted some 250 people to be sold into slavery in Algiers. One of the few who returned was the pastor Olafur Egilsson, released to try to persuade the Danish king to ransom his subjects, and Olafur left a memoir. His wife was ransomed and came home a decade later; the novel is her (largely imagined) story.

This raid was part of the coastal depredations of the Dutch renegade turned Barbary corsair, Murat Reis, who also enslaved over 100 people from the Irish village of Baltimore, and I was attracted to the novel both because he's someone I've written about before and because it promised to draw on the Icelandic sagas I also love.

"Story" is an important concept in the novel: throughout it, people reconstruct their own lives in stories, which do not always tally with reality but are generally easier to live with.
"Do you remember, Mamma? You said that if we were parted one day, we would be able to meet whenever we wanted inside our own heads, like you do with Egill and Helga and Pabbi."
She reaches up to Asta's face and strokes her damp cheeks. "I was practising when I saw you. It's like going into a room, isn't it? You're inside a story that isn't really true but it makes you feel nice while you're there".

Magnusson is good on the culture shock of the new which hits Asta in Algiers, also on the mixed feelings of those returning to their native lands – for women, who would be engaged in household drudgery wherever they lived, there were some benefits to drudging in a city with running water, and they must have noticed ruefully the return from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and spices to one based on cod and puffin. Asta's changing relationship with her husband Olafur is well sketched too. But in the book's mid-section, the decade in Algiers, I don't get as much of a feeling of time passing as I would like. Magnusson has written several books but this is her first fiction, and I'm not sure it quite has the novelist's focus which, unlike a historian's, can zoom in and out, sometimes dwelling and sometimes glossing over. The voyage of the slave-ship is well drawn, as is the journey home, but I think both go on too long for the proportions of the book. I also wonder if the fashionable present-tense narration makes it harder to sense time passing.

She is good on character though, as when, on their arrival in the city, Olafur's insatiable intellectual curiosity informs his reaction:
Squinting up, Olafur notices that the copper fretwork […] is moulded with flowers, quite exquisite, where the metal is joined. The alley ends in front of a great wooden door adorned with rows of iron studs and framed by an archway of stone sculpted with more flowers, each with a disc at its centre and a fan of petals. Like the rays of the sun, Olafur decides. (Asta, miserable with heat and the hungry squalling at her breast, sees only a door to get through and the prospect of sitting down.)
The warning of the seal-woman (yes, there is one of sorts) does not really work if you know the sagas (and many readers, surely, will know Gudrun Osvifsdottir's words to her son). Not only is it obvious what the seal-woman is on about from the moment she speaks, it never becomes clear exactly what Gudrun's words have to do with Asta's situation, except that both have had more than one man in their lives. I might have known the selkie would be a problem… But the novel is a gripping narrative which holds the reader's interest – a good story, in fact.