Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Sally Magnussonâ€˜s new book The Sealswomanâ€˜s Gift I was delighted to get the chance to hear her speak about it to Jackie McGlone at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
Magnusson has written eleven books already but this is her first novel, and as she says, it was a complete learning experience for her to tackle it. Trained first and foremost as a journalist, she is accustomed to research and checking facts.
While her novel is rooted in the fact that Iceland was invaded by pirates in the 17th century who ransacked the land and carried off inhabitants as slaves to be sold in Algiers, her imagination has provided the storyline and the emotional heft.
Itâ€™s a vividly described book of contrasting cultures – the harsh, bleak unforgiving land of Iceland, and the warm fragrant opulence of Algiers. Asta is the heroine of the story, a feisty woman sold into slavery who manages to intrigue her master Cilleby by sheer force of character and artful storytelling.
Thereâ€™s an echo of Scheherazade about her as she captivates Cilleby with tales from traditional Icelandic sagas.
The contrast between freedom and slavery, the cold North and the warm South, forbidding Christianity and prayerful Muslim is constantly underlined. The language of the book is formal, old fashioned, stylised, evoking its distant era. More than this, a whole world view of the time is beautifully evoked, while themes of motherhood and exile, refugees and freedom resonate to us today.
That Europe had a mass of pirates gathering up people as slaves for Africa was unknown to me, and thought provoking. That Iceland even further back in history had done the same in invading Ireland for slaves brought home just how circular is history. That which we abhor today we did yesterday.
Add into this mix a background of Icelandic mysticism, and the novel is enchanting. Itâ€™s beautifully crafted, beautifully written and storytelling at its best. Sally Magnusson was fascinating to listen to in her interview, as she candidly shared her uncertainties and doubts in trying to be a novelist. She need not fear – she’s a natural.
The Sealwoman’s Gift is published by Two Roads.