Rating: 4 stars
The Sealwoman’s Gift is a historical novel about the 1627 kidnapping of 400 Icelanders from the Westmann Isles by pirates who took them to Algiers and sold them as slaves. The book mostly follows Asta, the pastor’s wife. The pastor himself is sent on to the King of Denmark to negotiate a ransom payment, and Asta is left in Algiers with her daughter and newborn son, as the slave of an extravagantly wealthy moor by the name of Cilleby.
The great pleasure of this book is in the description of 17th century Algiers. Iceland is a cold, dark place where people eat a lot of puffins and listen to a lot of enthusiastic sermons. Algiers is a diverse and beautiful place where cultures mix and Asta’s life – though one of work – is comfortable. The characters themselves – especially Asta and Cilleby – feel lively and complex, and they make it engaging and attractive to read. My interest in the story waned a little whenever Cilleby was not around. He was more than a gruff, aloof master – there is a sense of wry detachment, for sure, but we’re dealing with more than a Mr Rochester here.
I did have some reservations about a few of the events in the latter half of the novel, and there was a lot of leaning on the analogy of Sheherezade and the Thousand and One Arabian nights, though I could forgive this as I enjoyed the snippets of Icelandic saga. I think this is the challenge of fitting what is essentially an imagined story into the confines of historical fact, and the novel was rich with research and detail.
Ultimately, I would strongly recommend this as an immersive and engaging historical novel that gives a witty, detailed, engaging view of an event – and a time – that I knew little about before.
Reviewed by Louise