The Sealwoman’s Gift: David Robinson Reviews

PART OF THE Social Justice ISSUE

‘Christian northerners being forced to survive among the infidels; the dismal realities of slavery and the remote hope of being ransomed.’

This month David Robinson reviews the hotly anticipated debut novel set in seventeenth-century Iceland by bestselling author and broadcaster Sally Magnusson. A striking tale of pirates, slave markets, and survival against the odds, Robinson finds The Sealwoman’s Gift gripping, ambitious, and impressively imaginative.

Imagine life in seventeenth-century Iceland. Sally Magnusson has, and the proof is written all over her first novel, The Sealwoman’s Gift. All the details are there: dark smoke-filled hovels reeking of fulmar oil used for the lamps, with a sheep’s uterus strung across a window to keep out the wind. A fire fuelled by puffin bones, a housewife stirring a greasy mutton stew, or softening the head of a cod in whey.

But she’s also imagined life almost as far away from there as you could get at the time: the slave markets of Algiers, the city’s rooftops where – hard to imagine for any Icelander –  washing dried quickly in the sun; the dazzlingly coloured silks and linen dresses that people wore; the sweaty secrets and unveiled jealousies of the harem.

Connecting the two is the historical fact of the Tyrjaranid, the Turkish Raid in 1627. To Icelanders, it lies as heavily on their history as Culloden or Bannockburn lie on ours – a date on which no fewer than 400 Icelanders, or one per cent of the population, were carried into slavery by North African pirates.

So when Magnusson’s publisher asked how she was going to follow up the success of Where Memories Go, her moving memoir about losing her mother to Alzheimer’s, she knew she had a great subject. It had everything: a world turned upside down, Christian northerners being forced to survive among the infidels; the dismal realities of slavery and the remote hope of being ransomed. How many Icelanders, she wondered, stuck to their childhood faith, and what must it have been like to take up a new one? What happened to their marriages? And even if a ransom was paid after a few years and an Icelandic slave was allowed to return home, how could anybody possibly do that – brave all the massive risks of travelling across Europe, sail back to Iceland, and carry on with their marriage where they had left off?

Magnusson knew she was onto something when she was shown, by the curator of a museum on the south Iceland island of Heimaey, proof in the archives of the existence of a woman who had done just that. Not too much more was known, other than that man to whom she came home was a minister who had been freed from captivity to in order to raise a ransom to free the islanders. But wasn’t that enough? Wasn’t the life of that woman – Asta Thorsteinsdottir – crying out to be told?

Although she had never written a novel, Magnusson realised that it was the only way she could do justice to Asta’s story. Those gaps in the historical record – nothing much beyond the details of her birth and death – were just too great to do otherwise. Historical fiction it had to be.

But here she came up against the enormous great question that all historical novelists have to wrestle with: to what extent are you free to make things up?

This was a bigger question for Magnusson than for most of us. All her life, she had only ever written – or tried to write – fact. It was facts, not imagination, that counted, whether for those being grilled by her father Magnus in the Mastermind chair, or in her own career as a journalist. And when she talks about writing The Sealwoman’s Gift, it’s easy to see how hard she must have found it to leave the world of facts behind and start to trust her imagination.

She’d already got the story’s essential scaffolding of research in place, and she knew the kind of details from social history that I mentioned at the start. But a novel is more than scaffolding and detail. A novel is also a matter of leaving some things behind too.

‘The journalist in me always wanted to establish what had happened,’ she explains. ‘I thought if I had as much of that as possible, I could imagine my way into the gaps in the story that were left without this reporter’s gauleiter voice all the time sounding inside my head saying “But that’s not true? How do you know it’s true?” Because, as long as that voice is there, you’re not free to invent.’

What finally stifled that gauleiter voice was meeting historical novelist Sarah Perry in 2015. They were in Connecticut, at a literary event run by a friend. Magnusson was chatting to the novelist James Robertson and Perry and was bemoaning the fact that she’d just been told her novel needed a rewrite. ‘How many drafts have you done?’ he asked her. ‘Just the one,’ she replied. At which point Robertson and Perry fell about laughing.

When Sally started that rewrite, it wasn’t just with a greater sense of commitment to the craft of writing. There was something else too: she no longer felt the need to cling on to the facts like a novice swimmer hanging onto the poolside rails while edging away from the shallow end. Going to Algiers, seeing where the slave market had been, feeling the heat, doing small bits of research – all of that had been useful, but it was something that Sarah Perry said that meant just as much.

‘We were talking about what kind of compromises you have to make with historical reality. Sarah said that you should try to be as authentic as you can, but at the end of the day you’re an artist and you get to choose what you want to put in. She gave the example of the opening chapter of her novel The Essex Serpent, which was not yet the global bestseller it since became. Some expert had written to her to say it was impossible that there would have been a tide such as the one she mentions in her opening chapter.

Sarah said, “Sorry, but it doesn’t matter. Those are the tides I wanted for my story.” And to me that was quite liberating because I realised that one of the reasons the first draft hadn’t worked was because I was in thrall to the framework of the story, rather than trying to be as accurate as possible but still having some freedom of imagination.

I thought, “When I get back to writing, I’m going to really let go.” It was like that first time when you ride a bike and you are wobbling along for a bit, with maybe your feet touching the ground occasionally. But then you learn the confidence to put them on the pedals. And at some point, you just have to take off and trust that you’re going to go ahead.’

In terms of her novel, that meant rewriting it in the third person, so the reader can see Asta’s story from other angles. This meant Magnusson imagining her way into the minds of other characters, and realising that she could set whatever rules she wanted for the story, as long as they made it work. The smaller stuff would go unsweated, the bigger picture would be more clearly drawn.

And the result? ‘A remarkable feat of imagination from the first, it leaps from the page. I enjoyed and admired it in equal measure.’ That’s not me. It’s from Sarah Perry. And while I wouldn’t normally quote someone who is probably the author’s friend, on this occasion I will. Because it’s true.

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson is out now published by Two Roads priced £16.99.

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