The copy of Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz, an Iceland-born journalist and professor of writing and research, had me spellbound as soon as I saw it lying on my desk.
The mystical cover, the title referencing one of the most touching Icelandic folk stories and the prospect of a thrilling historical novel—my favorite type of literature—reciting the story of German women who moved to Iceland to work on farms in the late 1940s. I have often wondered about their fate.
As I started reading, Eggerz kept me glued to the pages through the thoughts of Charlotte. A war widow of the worst kind, husband and child perished, her memories haunt her where she has made a new life for herself on a rugged island far from the bustling streets of pre-war Berlin. She has no one to talk to so she speaks to us. It almost feels as if we’re reading her diary.
An artist by education and nature, Charlotte’s hands are now busy with hard routine farm work but although she is tired from the repetitiveness of it all, the harsh weather, isolation and dark winters, she can’t bring herself to paint—the feeling for color lost.
Eggerz’s style is flowing and poetic and the descriptions vivid. I could picture myself walking through the streets of Berlin, following the young happy Charlotte and her passionate lover, paying attention to the same details they do. They watch everything through the eyes of artists and indeed their world feels like a moving painting.
The story is split in two parts, Germany and Iceland, as is Charlotte’s life. I found the German part almost perfect. I could feel and breathe her joy which then turned to pain; I could sense the rising tension in society and the resistance and later apathy towards the horrors of the war.
The only thing I would have changed was the intensity of the sexual references. I can see their importance in describing a passionate relationship and the atmosphere in the city before the war but were they really necessary outside those sections of the story, for example, when going to an interview for art school?
I did not connect as much with the Iceland part of the story, even though that world should be closer to me. The descriptions of life on the farm and its inhabitants seemed valid enough, albeit old-fashioned. That was the reality back then, especially on the remoter farms as I assume Charlotte’s was.
It took me a while to figure out what bothered me until I realized it was all so intangible. Where was the farm exactly? On a hill but close to the shore is all we get. Sometimes I imagined it was in the northeast, then I figured in must be on the southern coast but I couldn’t really place it anywhere.
Imaginary places are all right in novels, as are real or half-real places with pseudonyms, which is common in novels by Halldór Laxness and Jón Kalmann.
But I don’t think it’s fitting when one part of a novel describes a European metropolis down to street names but the other part a mysterious Icelandic countryside with farm names like Butterdale and Dark Castle, which don’t sound authentic at all.
I also would have wished a stronger reference to the seal woman of the folk story, whose fate definitely rhymes with that of Charlotte, which was only mentioned briefly in an amended version.
Summarized, it goes like this:
One morning on a stroll along the shore a man noticed people partying inside a cave and a pile of seal pelts outside. He grabbed one, brought it home and locked it inside a chest.
Later in the day he walked back to the cave and saw a beautiful naked woman crying. It was the seal whose pelt he had stolen.
The man brought the woman home and gave her clothes. She stayed with him but wouldn’t socialize with others and often stared at the sea.
They had many children and were happy but the man always kept the pelt locked in the chest and carried the key with him wherever he went.
Many years later he forgot the key at home and when he returned the chest was open and the pelt gone.
The woman had not resisted the urge, put on the pelt, bid her children farewell and dived into the sea. As she disappeared, she said: “I’m torn. I have seven children in the sea and seven on land.”
The man was devastated but when he rowed to the sea a seal often swam around his boat and it was as if it cried. He always got a good catch from then on.
When their children walked along the shore, a seal often swam in the surf and tossed multicolored fish and beautiful shells in their direction but it never returned to land.
These few points of criticism aside, I read the book feverishly until the very end and Eggerz left me hungry for more. She is a magician with words and I sincerely recommend her work.
Seal Woman was published by Ghost Road Press in the USA in 2008. It is available on amazon.com.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir