Sally Magnusson | 'I fell into this because I had a great story at my fingertips'

Sally Magnusson | 'I fell into this because I had a great story at my fingertips'

“A man shall not limp while both of his legs are the same length.” On the phone from her home in Scotland, Sally Magnusson is quoting one of the aphorisms from the Icelandic sagas that were part of her father’s “conversational furniture”. “It’s what he’d reply if he wasn’t feeling well, and my mother would suggest - in vain - that he go to the doctor. To unpack that one, you have to know about the medieval Icelandic saga hero, Gunnlaug Adder-tongue who refused to limp despite a boil in his instep that was leaking pus all over the Earl of Orkney’s hall floor.”

Magnusson’s late father Magnus, an Icelander known to millions as the long-time presenter of “Mastermind”, was also a famed translator into English of such Icelandic classics as Njal’s Saga and Laxdaela Saga. “As I was growing up, we were aware of him bashing away at the typewriter working on his translations, and then they would appear in these beautiful Penguin Classic editions. So the stories were woven into my childhood”, Magnusson tells me.

The stories are also woven into Sally Magnusson’s enthralling first novel, The Sealwoman’s Gift (February, Two Roads). Her main character, Ásta (pronounced “Owsta” in Icelandic) is a dreamer and a teller of tales, an attribute that will help carry her through the many trials that she has to endure. Set between 1627 and 1669, the novel - based on real events - relates what happens to Ásta, her family and many of her fellow villagers after they are forcibly taken by Barbary pirates from their homes in Iceland’s remote Westman Islands to Algiers, North Africa.

Despite growing up with Icelandic storytelling in her blood, Magnusson - already a successful non-fiction writer, notably of Where Memories Go, her bestselling memoir of her mother Mamie, who suffered from dementia - had never previously contemplated writing fiction. “I didn’t have any long-term desire to write a novel at all. In fact almost the opposite. I have long thought of myself as a reporter first and foremost and I’ve never had any illusions about what a very different skill the craft of novel writing is. I fell into this because I had a great story at my fingertips.”

While there were corsair raids all over Europe during the historical period which features in The Sealwoman’s Gift the story of the Tyrkjaránid, the so-called “Turkish Raid”, still looms large for Icelanders today. Out of a total population of around 40,000, 400 people were captured, including one in two people in the Westman Islands.

“It’s part of the collective memory of  the country, just as if you grow up in Scotland, as I did, everybody knows that the Scots beat the English at Bannockburn and that Flodden was a terrible disaster.” Magnusson had long been fascinated by this catastrophic episode in Iceland’s history. “But I was stymied by the fact that there was nothing written about it in English. I can manage conversational Icelandic but 17th-century texts are somewhat beyond me”. For years, Magnusson shelved her desire to do something with the story as she pursued a career as an author and TV presenter. Then, in 2008, one of the most famous contemporary accounts of the Turkish Raid was translated into English, a memoir by a clergyman named Ólafur Egilsson. It describes the abduction of his family and their voyage to Algiers, where they were sold into slavery. “I was completely staggered by the story he told. As literature it leaves much to be desired but in between all the heavy religious language in which it’s cloaked, it is just so powerful.” Her first instinct to write the story as a non-fiction book was defeated by the many gaps in his historical record. It was Lisa Highton, her editor at Two Roads, who encouraged her to write it as fiction.

The resulting novel is told from the point of view of Ólafur’s wife Ásta, also a real historical figure. When the couple are abducted from Iceland with their two children, Ólafur relates that Ásta is heavily pregnant and that later she gives birth on the slave ship during its voyage to North Africa. The mere thought of what she must have suffered compelled Magnusson - herself a mother of five - to tell the story from Ásta’s perspective. “Ólafur’s account dispenses with the childbirth in a sentence and a half. But any woman will just curl up in agony at the very thought of it.” Ólafur tells us nothing of what happened to Ásta in Algiers. But historical records show that she returned to Iceland 10 years later without any of her children. The fictional answer to the tantalising mystery of why this was the case is at the heart of The Sealwoman’s Gift.

Magnusson visited both the Westman Islands and Algiers for research. “I was conscious that a lot of Icelanders might read the book, and they’re immensely protective of their heritage. So I was keen to get Iceland absolutely right. I had a different job with Algiers, more of an imaginative responsibility to make sure that I didn’t write anything that completely flouted the little that is known about that time. The kasbah area I write about in the book is now only a very small part of modern Algiers. But I saw the houses which Ólafur mentions: he was amazed at the whiteness of the buildings and the flatness of the roofs. I felt I was able to imbibe something of the atmosphere, and the climate, and the positioning of the houses towards the sea. And that enabled me to imagine the contrast with Iceland and think how extraordinary it must have been to step off a ship and find yourself in a place where everything was so incredibly different.” The passages which describe the Icelanders’ first impressions of Algiers are among the most impressive in the novel.

So far, so rooted in real events. But true to Magnusson storytelling tradition, the novel also contains mythical elements, notably an old woman, Oddrún Pálsdóttir, who tells of consorting with sealfolk; while the deeply imaginative Ásta has an encounter with an elf-man. “The notion of hidden people is deep in the Icelandic psyche. I’ve always loved the fact that Icelanders are never quite sure if they believe in elves or not. Even to this day, if you’re building a road through Iceland, you don’t build it through an elf hill. Mainly because there’s so much space you don’t need to but there would be an outcry if you did”.

The Sealwoman’s Gift is a compelling read for anyone who has been to Iceland or has a yen to go there, as I do. Among its early fans are Icelandic novelist Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Sarah Perry, who calls it a“remarkable feat of imagination”. While a historical novel, it also contains contemporary resonances, particularly in the way it examines how different people integrate into a society that is completely foreign to them. Was this intentional?, I ask Magnusson. “In a way, yes. What interested me was people from a tiny, inward-looking culture being exposed to so much that was so different in Muslim North Africa: climate, work, religion, social mores. My fictional Ásta is a woman who is absolutely determined to see nothing good in the culture she’s ended up in because of the wickedness that has brought her there. And yet gradually, as her eyes are opened, she sees the justification for things that seemed inexcusable to her before. That’s what interests me in terms of today, the idea that once minds are opened to the way other people see things, it changes everything”.