Review: The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson
The Sealwoman’s Gift
Two Roads, £16.99
Review by Shirley Whiteside
In the 17th century, Barbary pirates prowled European waters, abducting men, women and children and selling them in the slave markets of Algiers and Morocco.
Asta has been contentedly married to the much older Egilsson for several years. They have three children and a fourth on the way. Life on Westman is hard. The weather is frequently bleak and feet never seem to dry. Egilsson is a good and godly man, preaching the Lutheran word to his flock and chastising Asta for her belief in elves, the invisible people and her love of the old Icelandic sagas. When the pirates appear only a handful of islanders manage to hide. Some are killed, but Egilsson, Asta and two of their children are rounded up with the others. Conditions on the pirate ship are appalling and Magnusson skilfully evokes the filth, stench and claustrophobic atmosphere as Asta gives birth to a son she names Jon. While on board, Oddrun, a crone who claims to be a sealwoman and has visions of the future, gives Asta a warning that will take her years to understand. “You remember Gudrun from the Laxdaela saga?” she croaks. “Do not do as Gudrun did.”
The islanders’ arrival at the slave market sees them treated like livestock. Magnusson shows their fear and humiliation as they are examined and have their teeth checked. Asta sees her son Egill being bought by the Pasha and Egilsson is sent to negotiate a ransom. Meanwhile she and her daughter and baby son are bought by Ali Pitterling Cilleby, a rich Moor who lives in the dazzling white city of Algiers.
In the harem, Asta is overwhelmed by the riot of colours and fine fabrics as Magnusson subtly contrasts Asta’s new life with the grey island existence she has left behind. The habits and customs of the Islamic household are viewed through Asta’s frequently astonished eyes. Food is so abundant that the excess is fed to the animals in the evening and the variety of fruits and spices are a revelation to someone who has spent most of her life surviving on fish and eggs. With the hot sun and beautiful gardens, Asta’s life in the harem takes on a dream-like quality.
Cilleby takes an interest in Asta and her Icelandic sagas, summoning her in the evening to talk while he relaxes with his coffee and pipe. Through Asta, Magnusson gives tantalising summaries of the sagas but none is told in full. This is disappointing in a novel where stories are so important. The sagas are Asta’s link to her old life, her comfort when she thinks about her husband and son and wonders if they have survived. Stories are also important to the other women in the harem, the Arabian Nights being as essential to their lives as Asta’s sagas are to her. After several years, Asta has become reconciled to her life in Algiers but when news arrives that a ransom is being paid she has to make a heartbreaking decision.
Magnusson has chosen a fascinating and little-known historical event as the starting point for her tale of surviving, and even thriving, against the odds. She adds a much-needed female perspective to Egilsson’s memoir of his journeys, providing Asta with a fully rounded personality and a curious mind to explore the new world she finds herself in. What doesn’t change, of course, is that Asta is subject to the rules and regulations of men whether she is in Iceland or Algiers.
This is an impressive debut from Magnusson who seems to have inherited her Icelandic ancestors’ talent for beguiling storytelling.
I’ll Keep You Safe
Review by Shirley Whiteside
TARTAN Noir may be a useful marketing term that helps sell Scotland’s many crime writers to the world but it fails to show how varied their books are. Two new novels give a flavour of the stylistic diversity being produced.
Bloody January, a gripping debut novel by Alan Parks, is set in Glasgow in the first few weeks of January, 1973. When a teenage boy shoots a young woman dead before turning the gun on himself, it is left to dishevelled Detective Harry McCoy to find out why. With Wattie, his new sidekick in tow, he is determined to find out why two teenagers died in such a shocking way. Was it a random killing by a boy high on drugs or was the girl a planned target? McCoy’s Glasgow is a dark, brooding city, where the line between the police and the underworld is frequently blurred. He uses drugs to keep himself awake during long shifts, and relaxes with a joint with Janey, a prostitute, when his work is over. Parks peppers the dialogue with industrial strength swearing but it never feels gratuitous, being perfectly in keeping with the patter of the various characters he has created. McCoy haunts some of Glasgow’s grubbier corners, from down-at-heel pubs to greasy cafes and dangerously derelict buildings hiding lucrative criminal enterprises. He goes to Paddy’s Market looking for an informant, and Parks takes the opportunity to explain the history and hierarchy of the market, with better goods being sold under the bridge away from the worst of the weather. This kind of insider knowledge grounds the story firmly in the Glasgow of yesteryear, long before it became miles better and a cultural hot spot. McCoy’s investigations lead him to the Dunlop family, one of the richest and best connected families in the city. Their public face is one of sober respectability but behind the scenes they are corrupt and ruthless. Warned to stay aware from the family, he is determined to do whatever it takes to solve the murder-suicide of two young people. McCoy joins a distinguished cadre of hard-boiled detectives, loners who prefer to do things their own way, and he is an intriguing addition to the canon.
Peter May returns to the Hebrides for his latest tale which features husband and wife, Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane. The Macfarlanes are in Paris to promote their unique cloth, Ranish Tweed, a lighter and more colourful version of Harris Tweed. Niamh receives an anonymous email saying that her husband is having an affair, which seems to explain the recent tension between them. Shortly afterwards, she witnesses the car Ruairidh is travelling in explode. Still in shock, she is questioned by Parisian police and realises that they suspect she might have had something to do with her husband’s death. Eventually she is allowed to return home and takes her husband’s remains, stored in a coffin meant for a premature baby, back to Lewis. Back home she has to negotiate family politics when all she wants to do is grieve for her husband.
The present day story is told in the third person, whereas Niamh relates the story of her relationship with Ruairidh and the growth of their business. This works well and offers essential background information about the couple from Niamh’s point of view. As a young child Niamh had fallen into a bog and was in danger of being sucked under. It was Ruairidh who slithered out on a wooden plank to save her. ‘I’ll keep you safe,’ he said.
May has conducted extensive research into the Hebridean weaving business, giving his tale of the fictional Ranish Tweed a solid foundation. He explains the different looms that are used, how the cloth is made at home by islanders, then finished in the local mills before being sold around the world. His descriptions of the Hebrides are lyrical and the changeable weather echoes Niamh’s erratic state of mind. Yet some of May’s characters are disappointingly clichéd. For example, Lee, the outrageous and self-indulgent fashion designer who gives them their first break, and Ruairidh’s mother, the archetypal disapproving mother-in-law. Niamh is well-rounded, her sorrow and confusion eliciting genuine sympathy. Even so, the latter section of the novel seems to lose its way. Niamh is still beset by problems but the denouement, when it finally arrives, is implausible. It undermines the mystery and tension that May has meticulously built up to that point, and the story ends with a whimper rather than a bang.
356pp, hardback, £14.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
Tom Keneally, winner of the 1982 Booker Prize with Schindler’s Ark, which was later adapted into the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List, here joins forces with his eldest daughter, Meg, a journalist, in the first of a new historical crime series set in nineteenth-century Australia. The simmering tensions in a British penal colony ratchet up with the mysterious death of the commandant’s beautiful young wife. Who could have murdered the sweet-natured Honora?
It is 1825, and Hugh Llewellyn Monsarrat finds himself working as a clerk to Major Shelbourne, the commandant of Port Macquarie penal colony which is situated down the coast from Sydney. Monsarrat was sentenced to be transported from England to Australia for fraud – he had been pretending to be a barrister – but his talents as a clerk mean he has mostly avoided the back-breaking work to which most convicts are subjected.
Monsarrat is a fascinating character and in flashbacks the Keneallys slowly reveal his life before transportation. He is educated but poor, and has a restless streak that leads him into the kind of risky behaviour resulting in his sentence. He knows he is lucky to be in the privileged position of clerk to the major.
Monsarrat’s only real friend in Port Macquarie is Mrs Mulrooney, who is housekeeper to Major Shelbourne and devoted to his wife, Honora Shelbourne. Each morning before taking up his pen, he visits Mrs Mulrooney’s kitchen for a cup of tea and lively conversation. Mrs Mulrooney was also transported but she has earned her ‘ticket’, meaning she cannot leave Australia but is considered a free woman within its confines. She is an illiterate Irish woman but her mind is sharp and her observations are keen. When Honora sickens and dies, Captain Diamond, a nasty and vicious man, arrests Mrs Mulrooney on a charge of murder. Monsarrat tries to find a way to exonerate his friend but Captain Diamond is hell-bent on hanging the woman. Monsarrat uncovers the identity of the murderer but can he bring the person to justice before Mrs Mulrooney is executed?
The novel’s extensive but never intrusive historical detail brings the penal colony to life, and contacts with the Birpai, the local Aboriginal people, demonstrate how arrogant Europeans took their lands without a second thought. The mix of people living in the colony is also interesting. There are professional British soldiers, men and women who had earned their tickets, special convicts like Monsarrat whose talents afforded them certain privileges, and ordinary convicts who toil in work gangs until infection or exhaustion kills them. As a person could be transported for the most menial of crimes, it was a cruel and brutal form of punishment. Daily life is well depicted, with each person in Port Macquarie knowing their role in the running of the colony. The descriptions of the flora and fauna of nineteenth-century Australia also root the story in a very particular time and place. It is beautiful, but for many it is a prison nonetheless.
The Solder’s Curse is an absorbing tale with a very likeable hero in Monsarrat. That the Keneallys are planning to feature him in further adventures is very good news indeed.
Jane Harris’s new novel is a gripping tale of colonial cruelty and slavery
FOR her third novel, Jane Harris takes an obscure true story and turns it into a gripping tale of colonial cruelty set in the Western Antilles in the late 18th century. Enthrallingly narrated by Lucien, a teenage slave, the story begins in Martinique and travels to Grenada where the British have instituted a particularly brutal regime for the enslaved. Harris has said she that visited Grenada during her research and the evidence of this is abundantly plain in the sense of place and time she evokes.
Lucien and his older brother, Emile, live on Martinique, slaves of les Frères de la Charité, a French religious order running a hospital on the island. In order to keep the hospital afloat, the Fathers have indigo and sugar cane plantations, tended by their slaves. By the standards of the age, the Fathers are not particularly harsh towards their charges, but the slaves live in primitive conditions and have no say in their fate. They can be bought, sold, or rented out in order to generate more money for the hospital.
In 1742, the Fathers had been drafted in by the French Colonial Government to run a hospital in Fort Royal, in neighbouring Grenada. When the superior Father died, the government took over the running of the hospital once again and sent the Fathers back to Martinique, but made them leave their slaves behind. In 1763, the British invaded Grenada and took over the hospital and the slaves, subjecting them to a vicious regime with ferociously harsh punishments for the slightest infraction.
Father Cléophas wants the slaves brought to Martinique, and decides that Emile and Lucien should go to Grenada covertly and persuade the slaves to escape from their British masters. For Lucien, it seems like a grand adventure but the more experienced Emile realises how much danger they are placing themselves in. Father Cléophas knows that Emile is desperate to see Céleste, the woman he loves, and despite his misgivings, Emile will do his best to bring Céleste to the relative safety of Martinique.
The relationship between the brothers forms the heart of Harris’s story and even as they bicker, the bond between them remains strong. When the illiterate Emile struggles to read a parchment that Father Cléophas has given him, Lucien empathises. “A pang seized my heart as I watched him squint at that page.” Lucien often feels that Emile is trying to side-line him and claim any glory for himself when, in fact, Emile is trying to protect his young brother. Lucien’s childish need to prove himself a man leads to trouble for both, but he remains likeable and sympathetic throughout.
Language plays an important role in the story. Lucien is sent on the secret mission because he speaks some English which may prove useful if the brothers are stopped by British soldiers. The French refer to the British as “the Goddams”, and their slaves speak a mixture of pidgin French, English and Kréyòl, forming a colourful patois. There is a pleasing rhythm to the slaves’ vivid and descriptive dialogue. France becomes “Fwance”, “kickeraboo”means dead, and “Chyen pa ka fè chat” means “dogs don’t make cats”. “Mwen ni bel poisons!” shout the vendors at the St Pierre harbour market where Lucien has often tried to buy fish or other goods, “paying in sugar, tomorrow self”.
Harris does not shy away from the horrendous conditions slaves are forced to endure, and the punishments meted out. Lucien, barely in his teens, already has a “back ridged with an island of scars, a map of tyranny,” thanks to Pillon, the violent man who fathered him. On Grenada, the brothers see a slave standing naked all day in the sun and trying not to let his ear, which is nailed to a wall, rip open. The callous inventiveness of the Goddams’ punishments is horrifying. Filling a slave’s mouth with human excrement and sealing it shut for several hours is one of their more disgusting methods. Although the Goddams are often referred to as English, there are Scots running plantations and overseeing the slaves. It is subtle, but Harris demonstrates that Scots were deeply involved in slavery.
This is a novel that celebrates the incredible capacity of humans to pursue lives filled with love and courage in the face of overwhelming cruelty. Harris’s novel may be set some 250 years ago, but it has a key relevance to the modern slavery that still blights our world.
Sugar Money by Jane Harris is published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99
Ethyl Smith’s Dark Times continues the engaging story of courageous Covenanter John Steel
DARK Times, the sequel to Ethyl Smith’s lively debut Changed Times, follows the fortunes of rebel John Steel after the Battle of Bothwell Brig, where the Covenanters were roundly defeated by government troops. The war between King Charles II, who wanted to impose a new liturgy throughout his kingdoms, and the Presbyterian Covenanters who resisted, is a bloody period in Scottish history.
The tale opens in the summer of 1679, with many of the beaten Covenanters taking to the heather and hills to avoid imprisonment, or worse. John Steel, who humiliated the Earl of Airlie by knocking him off his horse during the battle, finds himself a particular target of the vicious Earl’s vengeance. Steel uses his intimate knowledge of the landscape around Lesmahagow to avoid being captured but that angers the Earl even more. Airlie turns Marion, John’s wife, and their two young sons out of their home and warns their neighbours that anyone offering the Steels succour will be subject to the same kind of harsh punishment. Airlie tells Marion: “Under fugitive law I claim this farm and land. Frae this meenit on ye’ve nae richt tae be here.” Pregnant and unable to call on friends or family, Marion and her children have to live rough on the moors. Smith pulls no punches in detailing the violence and cruelty perpetrated by both sides but without lingering over the bloodshed.
She sets the scene well, weaving in the day-to-day routine of 17th-century farm life, the hard work and hardships, to her tale. Town life is also vividly depicted, from the respectable businesses to the disreputable taverns, and busy market days at nearby Lanark. The sense of community is palpable, with family and friends helping each other out in difficult times, while petty squabbles between neighbours can grumble on for years. What really sets Smith’s novel apart, however, is her superb use of Scots dialogue. From the educated Scots of the gentry and nobility to the broader brogues of everyday folk, the dialogue sparkles and demands to be read out loud. Wonderfully chewy words and phrases abound, such as “high falootin ideas”, “fricht”, “richtfu”, and “thocht”. Even those with little knowledge of Scots can grasp Smith’s meanings from the context, and the eye and ear soon become accustomed to the resonant language.
John Steel is based on the historical figure who lived through the turbulent Covenanting years, and Smith effortlessly intersperses other leading figures of the time with her fictional characters. John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, was loyal to the Stuart kings and enforced the law of the land with such ruthlessness he was nick-named Bluidy Claver. He was one of the most celebrated soldiers of the age and in Smith’s hands he is clever, urbane and sly. Reverend Richard Cameron, a radical Covenanter preacher, was known as the Lion of the Covenant. He had been studying in Holland, where he was ordained, before secretly returning to Scotland. He drew up the infamous Sanquhar Declaration, which openly denounced King Charles II as a tyrant and sought to exclude his Roman Catholic brother, James, from the succession. Cameron had a high price on his head. Smith shows him as a man fanatically wedded to the Covenanter cause, growing more radical and carelessly confident as he travelled around Scotland preaching field sermons.
Smith expands her geographical canvas, taking the story outwith Lesmahagow and into the surrounding countryside with government troops scouring the land for rebels, and shows the deprivations that both sides experienced. Several characters travel as far as Glasgow, then a major port with ships coming and going to the continent. She depicts the city as a hive of activity, not all of it legal. Wealthy merchants rub shoulders with the poor and criminal classes in streets teeming with life.
Smith’s prose is deceptively simple and she builds real tension into her story, sticking to the facts while creating plausible fiction in the spaces in between. The characters are well defined and generate a range of emotions, from sympathy to horror. John Steel is the hero of her tale but he is no superman. He is clever and well-liked but he makes mistakes and has regrets, the main one being that his wife and children suffer for his rebellious streak. Originally the Times series was envisaged as a trilogy, but fans will be delighted to learn that Smith is working on another two instalments about the life of the courageous John Steel.
Dark Times by Ethyl Smith is published by Thunderpoint Publishing, priced £9.99
415pp, hardback, £12.99
Frances Hardinge has written several young adult novels since her award-winning debut Fly By Night was published in 2005. Her last, The Lie Tree, won the 2015 Costa Book of the Year, the first YA novel to win since Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass in 2001.
Set at the beginning of the English Civil War, Hardinge’s new novel follows the trials and tribulations of a teenage girl called Makepeace, who lives in Poplar, then a small village outside London. Makepeace and her mother, Margaret, are reliant on the charity of relatives to put a roof over their head and food (however meagre) on their plates. Hardinge paints a grim picture of Makepeace’s life in a village that is Puritan in all but name. The outlandish names of its inhabitants – Fight-the-Good-Fight, Spit-in-the-Eye-of-the-Devil, Sorry-for-Sin, Miserable-Sinners-Are-We-All – offer an insight into the kind of society in which Makepeace lives.
Makepeace senses that she and her mother are different from the other people of Poplar, and just as keenly senses that she must hide any differences lest they be cast out of the village. Secretly, Margaret begins to teach Makepeace how to resist the ghosts of the recently dead who are desperate to find a body to contain them once more. Makepeace is special in that she has spaces in her mind where the dead might hide. If she is taken over by an evil spirit, or too many spirits, Makepeace will cease to exist. She will become a vessel that the spirits will control. Once a month Margaret forces Makepeace to spend the night in a graveyard so that she will learn to resist the marauding ghosts. Makepeace learns her lessons well but just once she lets her guard down and a spirit enters her. This spirit will help and hinder Makepeace as she tries to discover more about her origins.
Hardinge introduces some complex ideas about the nature of death and what might lie beyond which in other hands might bamboozle a young reader. However, she explains the crux of her plot well, making sure there are many opportunities for Makepeace to find herself in jeopardy, whether physical or spiritual.
With her mother’s death, Makepeace is packed off to her father’s family. Never having known her father, the rich, noble Fellmottes are a mystery to her. She soon discovers a number of strange relatives who frighten her with their dark, searching eyes. She tries to keep herself out of sight, working hard in the kitchen to earn her keep. But things are going on behind the respectable façade of the Fellmottes that spell danger for Makepeace and even her spirit lodger cannot help her. Again and again, she tries to escape the gloomy Fellmottes and then the outbreak of the Civil War suddenly presents her with new opportunities for flight.
Although aimed towards the young adult market, this is a well written novel with some extraordinary ideas that may be enjoyed by readers of any age. Hardinge employs enough cliff-hangers to keep the pages turning and her insights into the day-to-day privations in a country at war with itself are fascinating. She has a smooth style and the pages slip by with ease, making this absorbing, substantial novel feel much shorter than it is.