March - 2020 - The Sealwoman's Gift - Sally Magnusson

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Book Group 1 – March 2020


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 pregnant wife and their three children. Although a ransom for their release was eventually granted, this was not until several years later, when many of them had died, converted or integrated into their new lives.


This ‘Turkish raid” is well documented, but little is known as to what happened to the women and children afterwards. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent. An account of this traumatic event from a man’s point of view has been written by the abducted Reverent Ólafur Egilsson on his return to Iceland, but not much is known about the fate of the women.


Sally Magnusson, who is half Icelandic herself, is trying to fill in the silent gaps in history by trying to reconstruct what it would have been like for these women and children who became enslaved in an alien culture.

We follow the journey of the pastor’s wife ÁstaThorsteinsdóttir, who gives birth on the slave ship under terrible conditions, being sold at the slave market in Algiers along with the other captives, and finds herself in an environment that is absolutely alien to her.


The contrast between their former life in Iceland and life in Algiers could not be greater to these staunch Christians from a very isolated country where the landscape is beautiful but bleak and daily life is a struggle.The culture shock they experience in Algiers’ brightly coloured predominantly Muslim community with all its wonderful food and flowers, is enormous.

From the start Ásta is determined to hate and reject everything about this new life and the culture that has created so much misery for her.But during her decade as a slave in Algiers she is witnessing the integration of her children into an alien culture and religion, and gradually she sees justification for things that seemed inexcusable to her before.


The magic and power of story telling and the sagas weave through this beautifully written story of love, loss, resilience, redemption, and choices.There is Oddrún, the Sealwoman, who claims to have been a seal once, but lost her seal skin and is forever trapped in the body of a human, has visions about the future, and leaves Ásta with a special gift.  There is also the Elfman who always appears to Ásta whenever she has to make life-changing decisions.

The Sealwoman’s Gift is a truly amazing book, wonderfully written by Sally Magnusson.

We all agreed that the book is a fascinating read, and although not set in the our group’s usual context of Southeast Asia, it shows the differences, but also the many things that different religions have in common, and how in the end it is love and understanding that really counts.


Marianne Khor