The Sealwoman's Gift by Sally Magnusson

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The Sealwoman's Gift by Sally Magnusson

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Historically accurate, richly imagined and a subtle commentary on some modern issues. Or just a brilliantly told tale, if you prefer.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: June 2018
Publisher: Two Roads
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1473638983

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There is a legend that God came to visit Adam & Eve in the Garden. Eve had not finished bathing her children and ashamed of those still not cleansed, she attempted to hide them from the eyes of God, denying that she had more children that those, already bathed, that she willing paraded for him. God was not to be deceived, however, and decreed that what was sought to be hidden from the eyes of God would henceforth be hidden from the eyes of man, and so the Elves were born: the hidden folk. They can see man, but man can only see them if they so choose.

It is but a legend. But some people believe in legends. Ásta believes them. It is early in the 17th century and she lives on a windswept island off the coast of Iceland. She knows that the hidden folk live in the rocks and the hollows. Her husband, Ólafur, is a Lutheran pastor and has no truck with such outlandish rubbish. But he loves Ásta and so is gentle enough in his remonstrance.

Soon they have more than the rights and wrongs of fables to worry about. Pirates raid the cost of Iceland and its Westmann Islands and capture around 400 people, delivered – those who survived the crossing – into slavery in Algiers. That much of the story is true. Among the captives are Ólafur and Ásta and their youngest two children. Another will be delivered to them at sea. Their eldest is married and away from the childhood home. This much is also known to be true.

As is what happens next to Ólafur…and some of what happens to others taken in that same raid.

But as we know, history only goes so far, and back then the 'far' it went followed the men. Ólafur's story is known because he wrote it down, as did others who survived those years. All of them men. Records drop hints at the untold stories. Magnusson has pieced together what is known about the people whose stories were never told: the women and the children. And from there she spins a possibility…

…this isn't a history, it's a story, a legend, a maybe.

But like the best historical fiction, one can assume that it is also an amalgam of probabilities. The likelihood that all of these imagined events happened to one single woman and that woman was Ásta Thorsteinsdóttir is naturally small, that they all happened among the myriad women taken into slavery is almost certain. The good and the bad. Because what Magnusson has skilfully shown is that the experience of slavery was not universally horrific. Sometimes yes, but not always.

But also, that something does not have to be 'horrific' to be heart-wrenchingly painful.

The Sealwoman's Gift is a deeply imagined tale, which could be read for its extremes – of terror or of loss or of romance, they are all there – or it could be taken for the subtly nuanced rendition of what it is to be human. It is a story of love and loss, of freedom and captivity, of brutality and gentleness.

The Sealwoman's Gift is a timely work. It is a reminder that notions of slavery and concepts of race identity have become muddled in recent years. The enslavement of innumerable black Africans and their transportation across the globe is a shame we all bear, but in high-lighting that particular hideous trade, we lose sight of the fact that analogous trading in fellow humans has gone on for centuries before and since and that it has always been about power and money and has little to do with skin colour or race. Unpicking that muddy weave, might help us all to come to terms with the facts of history and letting them stand for what they were, without dragging the blame into later generations, equally without absolving any of our ancestors. If we can set the record straight on the past (good and bad) then just maybe we can start dealing with the present: where we still have issues of race, and of religion, and of slavery, and of money and power to deal with.

It is also a story about stories, as on the one hand Ásta takes on a the role of Scheherazade (which her listener immediately sees through) telling stories to others to keep them entranced, but on the other gives herself and her family stories as creating doorways into memory or into hope.

Some of the Icelandic sagas are woven in …hints of trails to send us off on story-hunts of our own.

The Sealwoman of the title was an old woman of Ásta's community. A madwoman. Or a visionary. Depending on your point of view. Her own point of view was that she was the Icelandic equivalent of a Selkie, a Sealwoman, and her skin had been stolen or lost many years ago. Many years she lived, and her visions were not always believed, for all they were sometimes true. Her 'Gift' of the title was a warning to Ásta not to make the same mistake as one of the saga heroines had done…only Ásta cannot figure out what the warning means.

Such is the way of Oracles. In every culture.

A lovely read. A believable story that is not over-played, it saves all of its deep emotion for the final chapters.

Loved it.

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