In 1627 four hundred Icelanders were violently abducted by pirates and sold into slavery in north Africa. Among them were a pastor and his wife and children from the tiny Westman Islands. Set in Iceland and Algiers in the 17th century, The Sealwoman’s Gift re-imagines the true story of that pirate raid through the eyes of the pastor’s wife.
Although this story has been widely documented in Iceland, it is little known elsewhere. Indeed it’s a neglected fact of Europe’s history that abduction by licensed privateers of the Ottoman empire (who were often themselves European renegades) was a fate suffered by thousands of coastal dwellers of many nations. There was an attack on Baltimore in Ireland in 1631, when a hundred people were snatched from their homes in exactly the same way. Iceland was the furthest north the corsairs raided.
But even in Iceland little is known about what happened to the women and children in captivity in Algiers. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent. The Sealwoman’s Gift imagines one woman’s experience in particular and reflects many others besides.
Captive in an alien Arab culture, the pastor’s wife meets the unravelling of her identity and the loss of her children with the one thing she has brought from home: the stories in her head. Until one day she is faced with an impossible choice.
Steeped in the sagas and folk stories of her northern homeland, Ásta Thorsteinsdóttir finds herself experiencing not just the separations and agonies of captivity, but the reassessments that come in any age when intelligent eyes are opened to other lives, other cultures and other kinds of loving. Her faith, her marriage and her homeland all come to be viewed afresh.
This is a book about loss and separation and love and the eternal power of storytelling to help us survive. It is rich with fully realised characters from another age, who also speak to what is universal and timeless in the human condition.
Heimaey, the only inhabited island of the Westman isles off the south coast of Iceland, is rendered in all its chilly, wind-battered beauty.
The novel is full of stories – Icelandic ones told to fend off a slave-owner’s advances, Arabian ones to help an old man die. And there are others, too: the stories we tell ourselves to protect our minds from what cannot otherwise be borne, the stories we need to make us happy.