One From the Archive: ‘Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland’ by Sarah Moss ****

First published in October 2014.

Sarah Moss, currently lecturing at Exeter University, has previously written two novels, Cold Earth and Night Waking. In 2009, she applied for a position as ‘an expert in nineteenth-century British literature’ at the University of Iceland on something of a ‘whim’, and consequently moved there with her young family.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland collects together Moss’ memories of living in Iceland during a turbulent period in the country’s history, which brought with it economic collapse and the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokul volcano, which caused problems on a global scale.

The prologue of the volume sets the vastly different vista of Iceland immediately: ‘the typography of the city’s night… There are perhaps half a dozen independent food shops left in Reykjavik and only chain bookshops, but every pool is distinctive’. She goes on to describe the way in which she views her new, albeit relatively temporary, home: ‘Here, just below the Earth’s summit, there are towns and villages, a tangle of human lives, in the shadow of Arctic eschatology’.

From the outset, the author’s fascination with the north is outlined. The first chapter describes her first trip to the country whilst still in her teens with one of her university friends, ‘camping rough because we couldn’t afford campsites and living on an increasingly sparse and eccentric diet because we couldn’t, really, afford food either’. The book is by turns heartwarming, sensual in terms of its perception of place, and rather amusing: ‘I am going to Iceland,’ Moss says, ‘but not because I have a secret desire to wear a horned helmet or drink mead out of a skull’.

Even before Moss, her husband and her two young sons move to Iceland, the problems of uprooting an entire family are made apparent. There is the problem of schooling for her oldest son Max who has become used to the English system of education, and how to decide which belongings to take: ‘my book-buying becomes more extravagant as I try to anticipate a year’s purchases, for myself and also for Max, who has a two-a-day fiction habit’. She describes in an incredibly honest manner what it is like to move away from everything you have ever known and to settle in a relatively alien place.

Throughout, Moss’ descriptions are wonderfully vivid and really bring her varied perceptions of the country to life. They are all enticing and rich in detail, and bring the landscape in which she lived to life. We are able to see the scenes for ourselves without moving from our comfortable reading nooks. During the Aurora borealis, she writes that ‘the northern sky, dark over the sea, is mottled with green that spreads like spilt paint… The green and white reach towards each other and then lunge away like opposing magnets forced together. I tread water, and watch’. When describing why she made the decision to uproot her family from comfortable Kent, she states: ‘We’d come for the landscape, for the pale nights and dark shores, rain sweeping over birch scrub, the whole circle of a flat world empty but for ourselves’.

Whilst Moss and her family are settling in, Iceland is hit hard by its failing economy. Other lecturers at the University of Iceland are resigned to the fact that the importation of books from overseas will ‘halt’, and the author’s own salary drops by a third in just a week. Rather than view this with a glum sadness, she takes it in her stride: ‘I don’t know why the collapse of the Icelandic economy… doesn’t put us off… I think it seems likely to be interesting’.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland is filled with a wealth of details about the country, from the wonderful to the unsettling. Almost everything about the day-to-day life of its citizens has been included, from the difficulty of renting a property when over ninety percent of the market is ‘owner occupied’, to the kindnesses of virtual strangers as they invite Moss and her family to learn about the culture and customs of their land. The battle between tradition and modernisation is ever-present and an interesting slice of social history has been thoughtfully provided throughout.

‘I am fascinated by this place,’ Moss tells us, ‘but I do not understand it, and all I think I have learnt so far is that understanding it won’t be easy’. As readers, we are her confidantes, those she does not mind sharing her secrets with. As a result, the book comes across as an incredibly friendly and honest piece of writing, which cannot fail but to entice the most resigned armchair reader to wish to explore the country. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland is an incredibly engaging, insightful and rather marvellous piece of travel literature.

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