Tag Archives: Iceland

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

I had not heard of this novel, but a member of our reading group recommended it for our 2024 list. When we discussed it last week, we all agreed that the story was well-told, and we had a good discussion about Åsta’s decision when she was given the opportunity to return home. We discussed how little we knew of the Barbary pirates, and how entrenched slavery seems to be in human commerce. We agreed The Sealwoman’s Gift was an excellent choice for a book group. 

The Sealwoman’s Gift

The story of Åsta and her family’s capture is based on real and recorded events. The family are living in the Westman Islands south of Iceland in 1627. They live a meagre life in an inhospitable environment. Åsta has two daughters, one living away, and a son and she is in the final stages of another pregnancy. Her husband, Ólafur, is a Lutheran priest, fierce in his determination that he and his parishioners will get to heaven by leading a good life. Suddenly the raiders arrive and remove four hundred people, adults and children, and load them onto their ships. Others are killed. It was known as the ‘Turkish Raid’ although the raiders are Barbary pirates, and the family is taken to Algiers.

It is also documented that Ólafur returned to beg the King of Denmark, who ruled Iceland, for the ransom demanded by the raiders. The king refused to see Ólafur, and it was many years before he agreed to support raising funds to pay for the return of the Icelandic captives. Most of the novel is concerned with what happened to Åsta and the others in the nine years of their captivity.

In the Author’s Note, Sally Magnusson makes it clear that she intended to recreate in an imaginative manner the lives of the women, giving their ordeal some substance. Women’s stories are often neglected. She succeeds, beginning with the birth of Åsta’s baby on board the ship that carries them to Algiers. This scene makes for hard reading, for Åsta is in the hold with the other captives. When they arrive, they wait in the square.

There is a flutter of red silk as the Ottoman governor of Algiers, exercising his historical right to choose for himself an eight of every group of new slaves, pads from one man to another, considering his options. (89-90)

The pasha chooses Åsta’s older son, Egill. It is clear that Egill is to be treated as a rent boy and who knows what the pasha will do with him when he tires of him. Åsta is distraught. The rest of the family are bought by Cilleby, a distinguished member of one of the town’s elite families. He has been persuaded that they are valuable, and that Ólafur is the man to negotiate the payment for their release. His first wife has asked him to buy a slave who can sew. 

So Åsta joins the harem in Cilleby’s household and Ólafur leaves for Copenhagen to negotiate with the king of Denmark. Åsta finds sewing hard, but her two children, the baby and Marta, soon endear themselves to the women of the household and she begins to learn the language. There are other European slaves in the household, and Anna, one of the Icelandic women who was taken in the same raid, marries a Muslim trader and she brings news and gossip.j

The years pass, and little news is forthcoming from Denmark, or from Ólafur. Åsta is forced to make a life for herself in her new situation. She joins the story-tellers in the harem, retelling sagas which enchanted her in her days in Iceland. Soon Cilleby asks for her to tell him these stories, and their relationship develops. He is not familiar with women of spirit who will not automatically obey him. 

One sad episode concerns the letter that Åsta wrote to Ólafur. She took it to a ship to hope that it would finally find him. This is what she says about the mixture of peoples in Algiers.

I have also found out that the people we were wont to call Turks are by no means all Turks. It is true that the highest people are most often from Turkey – they are also called Ottomans – but others, like the family of our high and mighty Ali Pitterling Cilleby, are Moors from Spain. Then there are Berbers, native to this land, and Jews. And besides the slaves, there are European renegades with their new Arabic names who are here to make money and stride about as if they own the place, which many of them do. (I19)

The letter, with others, is given to a sailor, with some money, but as she watches the boat leave the harbour she sees ‘a flock of white birds flies upwards, rising from the deck and then fluttering one by one to the water’. (125) Ólafur will not get his letter.

A businessman from Amsterdam arrives, after many years, with instructions to buy back the hostages. Money has been raised among the Icelandic population. To be qualified to return the captives must still follow the Lutheran faith, which excludes many of the young people. Others have settled to their new life, such as Anna, or set up in business themselves, and they do not choose to return. Some have disappeared. Åsta faces a dilemma, for she will leave her all three children behind if she chooses to return.

The cultural and religious contrasts between Iceland and Algiers are well explored, including the Icelanders’ responses to captivity. Strict Lutheran beliefs are challenged by Islamic observances and customs. The north African climate is so much less trying than the harshness of Iceland and the Westman islands. Women are treated differently in the two cultures, but in neither society do they have rights, and in neither can they control which dilemmas and decisions they must face. This is a story full of details and twists in the tradition of the Icelandic sagas.

There is a love story, but The Sealwoman’s Gift is a first and foremost a woman’s story, a wife and mother, experiencing loss and separation and cast into extraordinary circumstances. 

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson, published in 2018 by Two Roads. 367pp

There are four posts on Bookword blog featuring Iceland and its books. Here are the posts with links.

Bookword in Iceland (February 2017)

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, also based on historical evidence and rather grim. (March 2017)

And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson (November 2018)

Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir (March 2022)

The photographs are from my trip to Iceland in February 2017.

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Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir 

I opened this book to judge whether I wanted to add it to my tbr pile. I finished it in 24 hours. I was drawn in by the opening, the mystery of the woman who knew nothing of her own circumstances. In addition, it was set in Reykjavik, Iceland, a place I had liked immensely when I visited. The country is famous for its seismic activity, and the novel appeared to make a reference to it in the title: Quake.

Quake

The narrator is a woman of about 30 whose name is Saga. The story begins when Saga comes round from a grand mal seizure, and she cannot work out where she is, or remember how she got there, or where her son is or why they are not together. She is in hospital in Reykjavik.

The quake of the title disrupts the narrator’s memory and understanding of her past and her identity. But it also refers to the upset of her life that immediately preceded a series of seizures. They have returned after a long absence since adolescence. 

Saga is very ill and even when she is well enough to go home, she must not be left alone, or take care of her son. She needs help. Her parents arrive, then her sister and eventually she employs the teenager and her boyfriend next door to stay with her. These two seem to be more organised than any of the other characters in the novel, including the medical staff.

When her mother goes missing Saga becomes less of the focus for the family which is when she finally realises that her life is difficult, indeed that she has to face up to some enormous changes. Her husband does not want to return to her, she finally understands the causes of her mother’s periodic disappearances, and her work must come second to her son and her recovery. Having understood all this she can begin to put things together for herself and for her family.

Her love of her son runs through the short chapters. Here is the moment he visits her in hospital. Saga has been afraid that he was lost when she fell.

He stands by the side of my bed. Laughter lights up his face, his golden locks. His baby teeth graze my cheek, little nips of love. Wasn’t he going to the doctor? […]
“Mamma is here,” I whisper as I breathe him in greedily, drag him into my arms, still uncertain whether it’s a dream or flesh and blood. It’s enough that he’s here, my Ívar, in this strange room in which he doesn’t fit. In which I shouldn’t fit. He should never find out how frightened I feel, stitched into this sterile landscape with hypodermic needles. (14)

As Saga gradually recovers, and talks with her sister and her parents, and the young couple who seem to have adopted her, she begins to see the world as it is, although she is tempted to continue to see it only as she wishes it to be. 

Instability – of the ground beneath your feet, or in your life – is unlikely to occur only once. But Saga is better equipped to deal with the dramas she will encounter by the end of the novel

Her name, Saga, is a reference to the cultural heritage of her country, and to the place of storytelling in creating identity and belonging. When she first has her seizure Saga loses both but regains them through retelling stories with her family and with her son.

Books and Iceland

Iceland is a fascinating country. It has a population of under 400,000, of whom nearly 125,000 live in the capital Reykjavik. It has only been settled since the 9th Century. Due to plate tectonic activities volcanoes and earthquakes are common, and the island country has many hydrothermal baths. It has some attractive traditions, including the Jolabokaflod, the Christmas book flood, the name given to the book-buying bonanza of the Christmas period. Books are Iceland’s most popular Christmas present.

I visited Iceland in February 2017 and I wrote about it on this Blog: Bookword in Iceland. The photographs in this post are from that visit. By the way, I never finished reading the Laxness.

I have read Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, a difficult story based on real events, about a woman awaiting execution in Iceland in 1829. I included it in a post called Why use real people in fiction?

Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir, first published in Iceland in 2015 by the dottir press. 295pp. The English version was published in 2022, translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich. 

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And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson

Recently I seem to have become worn down by reading long and difficult books. So it was with some pleasure that I began this short Icelandic novel from Peirene Press. I enjoyed the structure, a series of stories about people in one village, translated by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery.

It’s good to subscribe to Peirene. Periodically, that is every four months, I receive a translated novella, European, attractively produced and always interesting. This novel is from the current series: Home in Exile.

And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson

A coastal village, Valeyri, north of Reykjavik, is the focus of this novel. The question is being asked, what makes a community?

A village is not just the movement of the surf and a life of work, the clattering of a motorboat, or dogs that lie in the sunshine with their heads on their paws. It’s not only the smell of the sea, oil, guano, life and death, the fish and the funny house names. It’s also a chronicle that moves softly through the streets, preserving an elemental image of the village created piece by piece over the course of centuries. This is us, what we are like, the people of Valeyri, we here, we. (84)

I respond warmly to the idea that a community is its shared history, written down, narrated or even never told. This idea appeals to the historian in me, and helps me understand why we look into our local and our family histories and why we commemorate events.

What this short novel gives us is a succession of stories about some of Valeyri’s inhabitants. Structurally they are linked by the image of a young woman who is wearing a distinctive blue polka dot dress and who cycles to the concert she is due to conduct in the village hall, to be performed by the local choir.

She herself is from Trnava, Slovakia and the story of how she arrived in Valeyri is only revealed towards the end of the novel, connected to someone else’s story. We briefly visit other local people, musicians, former couples, the gambling priest, the rescuers, the fixers, and the people who own and run the restaurant. The stories are intertwined.

We can see that community is shared and evolving stories, held together by shared activities, shared retelling of the histories, acts of kindness and generosity, and facing together the challenges of life in the 21stcentury.

This is an affirming novel. The publisher, Meike Ziervogel tells us why she chose it:

Reading this book was like embarking on a gentle journey – with music in my ears and wind in my hair. Yes, there is some darkness in the tales, and not every character is happy. But the story is told with such empathy that I couldn’t help but smile and forgive the flaws that make us human.

You can find the post Bookword in Iceland here. I never finished Independent People, by the way.

And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson, first published in Icelandic in 2011. Translated by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery it was published in Engllish by Peirene Press in 2018. 173pp

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Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf

What I like about reading fiction in translation is that everything is questioned; everything familiar about fiction written in English is made unfamiliar. I find that exciting and unsettling and I finish these monthly forays into Women in Translation always a little chastened, wondering at the stretching of my ideas about fiction, life and the world.

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf is my choice for July in this series. Among many things, she makes me ask myself, what is fiction? For here one finds diaries (fictional or not?), reports, photographs, line drawings, diagrams, memoir and reflections, particularly on the subject of the polar explorers and on ice. It was published in Barcelona in 2015 as Germa de gel and was translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

A Summary

First it was the tabular icebergs, which appeared floating in the local pool. Narwhals got in through a crack in the tiles at the bottom. In the chlorinated water, I squeezed a bit of white ice in my hand, making a game of sinking it and letting it resurface. A dream. Later, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I saw icecaps in the blue tutus on Degas’s ballerinas. (15)

I found this to be a strange novel, difficult to get into. I have quoted the opening paragraph. It does not obey many of the rules for hooking the reader. In fact, it is quite obscure. But the reader is soon offered so much information, so many ideas, (I love the ballerina tutu image), so that many of us have stuck with it. The themes of ice and polar exploration soon emerge.

Part of the novel is the story of the writer’s struggles as an artist, in Barcelona, with galleries, her work and so forth. Some of it is about her youth, and especially growing up with an autistic brother. Alicia tells us about her family, how her father left, her mother became fixed on her work at school and care for her son, who cannot do the simplest thing without being instructed. Her writing, about the her (?fictional) past, is down to earth, authentic.

The Alicia of the novel makes her way gradually as an artist, often poor, often doing awful jobs, sometimes in a relationship sometimes not. Life is hard and she questions all the time why she is writing this.

She also offers us riffs on her many experiences, on ideas that emerge. For example she produced a taxonomy of gifts (poisoned gift, regift, betrayal gift, apology gift, crap gift etc), and makes observations about the necessity to read the language of nature to learn more about the natural world.

And there is a great deal about the compulsion of the polar regions for the explorers who wanted to be first to the poles, about the trials of their expeditions.

What I liked

I enjoyed the accumulation of all this. And I was captivated by the central idea of the impermanence and unfixed-ness of things – of ice, the poles, life, love, the family, one’s ideas and achievements. I also like the idea that the writer and the reader is something like those polar explorers.

I especially enjoyed the final section of the novel, set in Iceland. The airline looses her luggage, she goes to visit the waterfalls and the valley of the first Icelandic parliament on excursions. I recognised the country I have visited. Of the Gullfoss (Golden Falls) she writes:

Its energy and ferocity combined with the purifying power of the water exert a magnetic pull on me that I can’t quite rationalize. (221)

The novel won the English Pen Award and came to me through the Asymptote club. My name appears in the list at the back, because I supported the publisher.

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf, published by And Other Stories in 2015. 256pp

Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated from the French by ModupéBodé-Thomas

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

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Bookword in Iceland

Reading and travelling are both experiences of visiting new worlds. I like combining them and set about finding bookish connections when I’m on the move. I went to Iceland in February. Not my idea, but my brother is celebrating what people call a ‘big birthday’ and I said I would go with him. He hoped to see the Northern Lights. I’m up for such things, especially when I get to visit a new place. Here are some bookish reflections on my brief time in Iceland.

Strangers in Iceland

In 2009 Sarah Moss went to live in Iceland with her partner and children. She had a contract for a year with the University of Reykjavik. 2009 was the year following Kreppa, the Icelandic term for the financial crash. Kreppa ended the years of silly and false money-making in Iceland. People were suffering.

Sarah Moss is a novelist, author of Night Waking (2011) and The Tidal Zone (2016), both excellent novels published by Granta. The book she wrote about her time in Iceland is categorized as ‘travel’. It is not like any travel book I have read. It is more of a what-I-noticed-when-we-lived-in-Iceland-for-a-year kind of book. It is called Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland. I recommend it even if you are not planning a visit.

From Names for the Sea I got the impression that Icelandic people may look and behave like other Western people, but actually they are very different. Icelandic people have sense of themselves as distinct, and what it means to be Icelandic, and a pride in their country and culture. They like the perception that theirs is the safest country in the world (1.1 murders a year are committed on average. Sadly, the week before we visited, Birna, a young girl was murdered. There were searches and a vigil and a man from Greenland has been arrested.)

Our sense of Iceland, as tourists, was that we should not be stressed. They had everything covered. Coaches and minibuses crisscrossed Reykjavik, fetching tourists from hotels and taking them on tours, information always provided about the arrangements. Even when our minibus broke down on the way back to the airport, a substitute was quickly fetched, and we proceeded with very little problem, delay or stress.

During her residence Sarah Moss found food banks, half finished blocks of flats and a poor exchange rate. We did not see the first two, but it was not cheap if you kept calculating the cost of things in £££s.

‘Icelanders knit everywhere,’ said Sarah Moss (281). The only person I saw knitting was a woman in the wool shop I visited, who demonstrated the way in which they hold their needles and wool. Icelandic sweaters and other necessary warm garments are widely available. I bought some yarn – how could I not?

I also learned from Sarah Moss that Icelanders take a coat with them all year round. In February this was not really in doubt. But in Reykjavik, we had rain and wind and the worst combination of these I have experienced this winter. But the temperature during the day never dropped below freezing. Out of the city it was another story.

Independent People

And now I am wading through Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People. It’s a long story (more than 500 pages), an epic, about Bjartur a farmer in the desolate countryside, who is determined to become independent, who sees independence as the ultimate goal of all his labours. And labour he does, against the elements, bad fortune, hapless neighbours, the death of his first wife and a determined child. And Bjartur pays the price for his stubbornness.

Set in the early twentieth century, but describing life as it had been lived for many centuries, Laxness spares no detail of the crofters’ lives. Meetings of the men, coffee, rounding up sheep, falling into the Glacier River, the governance, relationships with neighbours … it’s all here. Especially the snow and the coffee.

Pingvellar National Park

What, I wondered, is the value of independence in an environment where cooperation and collaboration are clearly more likely to achieve desired outcomes?

Halldor Laxness, 1906 – 1998, published his novel in 1934-5. He produced other novels and translations, and wrote for the theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

Halldor Laxness 1955

Other bookish things

I need to reconnect with the Icelandic Sagas. The shops offered a hefty and attractive Penguin edition, but it seemed crazy to add such an object to our suitcase and to pay the Icelandic price. Iceland was only settled from 870. People had lived there before, but not successfully. The inhospitable landscape and climate would put off most folks. This is the stuff of good stories.

One of the many, many tours offered to tourists was The Game of Thrones Tour. We swam in the Blue Lagoon instead.

Our hotel had a bookshelf for guests. Prominent in the collection was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, one of President Obama’s recommendations, and one of mine.

I’m not a fan of Nordic-noir, or whatever genre in which you would include Icelandic thrillers. There are plenty.

Go to Iceland! It’s another country; they do things differently there.

Book details

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (2012) Granta 358pp

Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1934-5). Translated from the Icelandic by James Anderson Thompson and first published in 1946, in translation. Available in the Vintage edition. 544pp

And go to TripFiction’s website to find other location-based fiction.

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