I had a spontaneous trip to Milton Keynes to meet up with my best friend at the weekend, and selected this book as likely to last me the bus and train journeys there and back. Which indeed it did! It was given to me by Sue for my BookCrossing Birmingham Not So Secret Santa last Christmas (along with the Ursula Le Guin I reviewed the other day) and was another great choice!

Sally Magnusson – “The Sealwoman’s Gift”

(16 December 2020 – from Sue via BookCrossing)

Now I have to say that I don’t really read historical fiction, and I certainly don’t like reading fiction about real people. And guess what? This is both. But maybe reading “Roots” changed me more than I thought. Although to be fair I didn’t realise everyone in the book was real until I read the afterword. And to be fair again, Iceland and North Africa are two places I really like reading about.

This book is set in the 17th century and imagines the detail of what one of the women who was kidnapped by slave traders from the coastal islands of Iceland and shipped off and sold in Algiers went through, thought and experienced during her kidnapping, voyage, selling, separation from her husband and children and life as a family slave in a Muslim household. Asta is the wife of a pastor, and while he is given his freedom to go and plead for a ransom from the King of Denmark, their oldest son is taken away by the Pasha, and Asta and her youngest children (one born on the voyage) settle down into a rich, polygamous household.

Asta never loses her spark and battles with the man of the house – who is fascinated by this woman who tells him tales from the sagas and stands up to him. As she sees the other Icelanders suffer and die or become submerged in this strange new society and become accustomed to it, in some cases rising up the ranks in a city where anyone can achieve anything, she tries to keep her own morals and personality clear. But when she has to choose between staying with her owners, maybe being given her freedom in time, and possibly retaining contact at least with her son and returning, ransomed, to Iceland, where her older husband might be dead and half her neighbours were slaughtered as they resisted, what will she do? And what of the last prophecy her friend and neighbour, Oddrun, gives to her, a woman who is laughed at in Iceland but shows a spooky prescience that’s also intermixed with tales of the Hidden Folk?

It’s an interesting contrast with a book like “Roots” – here members of a population taken from Europe to North Africa are either clinging to their own customs, religion and stories or accepting the new ways of life and assimilating; the evils of slavery and punishment for those who push back are clear and the temptations to give up are real. It’s really well-written and very detailed, and you really do feel for all the characters and their various fates.

And the real people thing? Well, the Author’s Note explains who everyone is, and then you realise there are some familiar Icelandic names in there. Including the sagas woven in is a stroke of genius, and it’s just a great read, whatever it’s based on.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 8/85 – 77 to go