The Sealwoman’s Gift – lush historical fiction

  • Title: The Sealwoman’s Gift
  • AuthorSally Magnusson
  • Genre: North Africa, Iceland, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
  • Publication Date: February 8th 2018
  • Publisher: Two Roads
  • Rating: 4.5/5 stars

I expected a good story when I picked this up; what I got was a compelling historical read about a period in history I knew nothing about.

In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted some 400 of its people, including 250 from a tiny island off the mainland. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers were the island pastor, his wife and their three children. Although the raid itself is well documented, little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent.

In this brilliant reimagining, Sally Magnusson gives a voice to Ásta, the pastor’s wife. Enslaved in an alien Arab culture Ásta meets the loss of both her freedom and her children with the one thing she has brought from home: the stories in her head. Steeped in the sagas and folk tales of her northern homeland, she 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.

The writing was so compelling, and Asta was so human, so kind and intelligent, you can’t help but fall in love with her. Her life was hard, and yet she maintained her dignity as best she could, and remained faithful to herself, her heritage, her history, and her family.

The book is based on historical incidences, where Barbary Pirates did abduct hundreds of people and sold them into slavery. Specifically, the book highlights that in 1627, Moorish corsairs attacked settlements Iceland, which is known as the Turkish Raid. About 400 people were captured—mostly from Vestmannaeyjar, were were sold into slavery in North Africa. In the book, Asta, the wife of a reverend Ólafur Egilsson, who was a real person and wrote a book on his experiences, is the main character, and we get into her mind as a woman, as a mother, as a wife, and as a slave in a foreign world.


I couldn’t stop reading this book, particularly because it doesn’t simply hold the Moors as evil heathens, but in some ways, humanizes them, not to relinquish them of responsibility, but to showcase that we are all people, and we all make mistakes.

Coupled with the icelandic folklore woven into the tale, the book is a rich, imaginative, and compelling one.

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