October 2018 Club

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

The Sealwoman's Gift tells the extraordinary story of the effects of a traumatic raid on the Icelandic isles of Westman in the early 17th century. Barbary pirates captured 400 inhabitants and transported them to Algiers where they were sold into slavery.

To discover that this tale was true and that slaves were taken by Ottomans, Moors, Berbers and Jews from Celtic countries such as Scotland and Ireland to Mediterranean countries including France and Italy and even as far afield as China and Japan, exposed a whole era of history of which I was totally unaware.

Àsta and her pastor husband, Ólafur, are separated at the slave market, once they reach Algiers. Àsta has just given birth on the ship and is allowed to keep the baby, for the time being. She is purchased by a Moor who isn’t cruel and there is an electric yet forbidden attraction between them that grows over the years. Her son stays with her in the women’s quarters until he is old enough to join the men and he’s keen to learn the Islamic prayers. Àsta is torn as Ólafur seems to have abandoned them. She is mortified at the thought of him ever finding out about his son adopting Muslim ways instead of the staunch Christian beliefs he holds so dear.

Meanwhile, Ólafur is sent to make his way from Algiers to Copenhagen to petition the king to send ransom money to release his countrymen. The trip is arduous but unsuccessful. Ólafur returns to Iceland but spends years trying to raise the funds to help release his wife and children from captivity by encouraging knitting and fish sales.

Beautifully written, The Sealwoman’s Gift feels like an important novel relevant to today. Magnusson’s depiction of the contrast in lifestyles between the stark, cold, dark winters of Iceland with the warm, rosewater-infused, gold riches of Algiers is perfectly portrayed. Both cultures treasure the art of story-telling. Although Àsta longs for her home country, as the years pass, she also appreciates the “freedoms of captivity: the freedom to withdraw from the gaze of men under a veil, the freedom from skirts that trip you in the rain and soak up the mud”.

Ultimately, Magnusson determines that she has written this book, not just as a saga, but to give voice to a woman of the time. Any historical accounts of these events have been written by men. But where are the words of the women? In sagas maybe, but now we know that the pastor’s wife whose grave lies in Ofanleiti perhaps “had a mind as interesting as his and experiences no man would think to record.”

Àsta is a character that will endure in my mind.

Colourway inspiration

Given the dual location of this novel and the vastly contrasting sense of place, I felt it would work best to choose one of the locations and I opted for the homeland of Iceland.

For the variegated colourway, I started with a leaden rock grey and added in light moss green, vibrant aqua, teal, ochre, sea blue and black leaving touches of white to represent the Icelandic landscape of lava, lichen, rockpools, puffins, sandwort and moss. I called it Elfstone.

For the semi-solid colourway, I had in mind the icy teal-blue of the ocean mixed with the indefinable colour of Àsta’s eyes which are described as not quite blue – sometimes like a gull-wings, sometimes like “the hue of the sea when the sun catches it by surprise some days”. I called it Seasalt.

The yarn type I chose was Linger – like the saga itself, it was long, twisted and you want to savour it to the very end.