Posted in Book Reviews

The Sealwoman’s Gift – Herald Review

Review: The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

This is an impressive debut from Sally Magnusson who seems to have inherited her Icelandic ancestors’ talent for beguiling storytelling

This is an impressive debut from Sally Magnusson who seems to have inherited her Icelandic ancestors’ talent for beguiling storytelling

The Sealwoman’s Gift

Sally Magnusson

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.

In 1627, pirates raided Iceland and the Reverend Olafur Egilsson, his wife and their children were taken from the small coastal island of Westman along with some 400 of their friends and neighbours. After a long and difficult voyage aboard an overcrowded ship, they arrived at the Algiers slave market. The islanders were sold but Egilsson was freed so that he could go to the King of Denmark, Norway and Iceland to petition for a ransom for his compatriots. Egilsson wrote about his experiences in The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: Captured by Pirates in 1627, but there are no records of how Asta, his wife, fared in a foreign land. For her debut novel, Sally Magnusson has given voice to Asta and she emerges as an intelligent, courageous woman making the best of what life has thrown at her.

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.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton – review

Here is my review of Jessie Burton’s marvellous debut novel in the Herald.

Jessie Burton: The Miniaturist (Picador)

Review: Shirley Whiteside

Saturday 26 July 2014

Jessie Burton’s gripping debut novel is set in 17th-century Amsterdam, on the surface a rather prim and proper city which almost succeeds in hiding the damp and mould that creeps into every home and every life.

It opens with 18-year-old Petronella Oortman arriving to begin life with her wealthy husband, Johannes Brandt, a merchant trader and one of the most powerful men in the city. Nella is not met by her husband but by his stern sister, Marin, and the house’s two servants, Otto and Cornelia. It is a strange and unsettling welcome for a teenage bride from the country and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Things do not improve when Nella does meet Johannes. He is kind to her but treats his dogs with more affection, which angers his sister Marin who wastes no time in scolding him. It is through this hot exchange of words that Nella learns that it was Marin’s idea for the reluctant Johannes to marry. To appease the women in his life, Johannes buys Nella an expensive and minutely detailed replica of their house which she is to furnish as she pleases. Nella is dismayed, feeling that Johannes is treating her like a child, but she decides to take her wedding gift at face value and employs a miniaturist to make pieces of furniture for it. She never meets the miniaturist face to face but when pieces she hasn’t ordered arrive with disturbing, cryptic messages, Nella becomes increasingly convinced that she is being spied upon.

Burton’s narrative centres on Nella and her relationships with Marin and the overly-familiar servant, Cornelia. Nella is a little afraid of Marin, who not only runs the household but discusses business strategies with Johannes, which both surprises Nella and makes her jealous. Cornelia behaves like no servant Nella has ever met, with her constant chatter and gossip, but her loyalty to Johannes and Marin knows no bounds. Nella soon realises that without Cornelia, her life in the Brandt household would be even lonelier. Because of her family’s precarious financial position, she cannot consider leaving her ‘good’ marriage and returning to genteel poverty in the country. Young as she is, she must find a way to make her new life work.

Nella has to grow up very quickly and Burton handles her development well. Occasionally Nella feels a little too modern in her views and attitudes to be a young woman of the late 17th century but this is a minor criticism of such an appealing character. Burton employs a light, formal style of language throughout which, alongside a scattering of Dutch words with their unfamiliar sounds, evokes a palpable sense of another time and place. There is a strong sensation of looking through a window into the lives of 17th-century Dutch families and seeing past the public faces and into their most private moments.

The wintry city of Amsterdam provides a gloomy setting, the cold and constant damp an ominous reflection of life with the Brandts. Burton gives succinct explanations of the workings of Holland as a trading nation and the rules of the various guilds. Johannes spends a lot of time at the bourse, the commodity trading centre, and at his warehouses where the goods he buys and sells are stored. It is when Johannes takes on a sugar consignment to sell for a former friend that the seeds of the Brandts’ destruction are sown. Slowly the sugar begins to spoil and the secrets that ruin Nella’s dream of a happy family unfurl.

After the deep unease of the opening, Burton slowly ratchets up the tension until the Brandt family faces ruin or triumph in a scandalous court case. Will the great and good of Amsterdam value the guilder and business over what passes between adults in private? What happens next is as brutal as it is hypocritical but in a strange way it is the making of Nella.

Burton set herself no easy task when she decided to write this complex novel, full not only of beautiful historical details but of rounded characters that are easy to care for. It is a delight to read such an intelligent page-turner.

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