2012 Memoirs

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, living, volcano, people, remote

A few years ago I read Night Waking by Sarah Moss and loved it, so when I discovered that she’d written a memoir about her year living in Iceland I was especially keen to read it.

In 2009 Sarah Moss got a job teaching English Literature at Reykjavik University. Names for the Sea explains what life was like for her family as they adapted to the new culture. It details everything from how her children settled into local schools, to historical facts about the Icelandic people. It could be criticised for not focusing on one genre, but I liked the hotchpotch of interesting facts as it enabled me to find out about everything from its politics to what Icelanders do on cold, dark days. The 2009 academic year was especially interesting as it meant Sarah Moss was present to witness both the financial collapse of the country and the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.

I’ve been fascinated by the absence of apocalypse here. We’ve been told to keep young children inside if ash is present in the air and that a group of medical researchers is taking this opportunity to investigate the long-term effects of ash-inhalation, which is not currently believed to cause more than passing symptoms. The English headlines, read online, are much more panicky than any in Iceland, fearing ash drifting over the North Atlantic, causing lung problems and possibly affecting crops and groundwater.

I had an unusual relationship with this book because I read half of it before travelling to Iceland and the second half once there. Reading the book in England I was preparing myself for a very different experience to the one I encountered. I’m not sure if this is because Iceland has changed a lot in the few years since Sarah Moss was there; if things were different because I was simply a tourist with no intent of living in the country; or because I am more used to travelling in different countries, but I found the book exaggerated things.  For example, the book spent a lot of time talking about the limited food options. I was prepared for a country with next to no fruit/vegetables and nothing but fish or lamb in the protein department (fine for a two week holiday, but I can see why this might have been a difficult adjustment when living somewhere for a longer period)  Instead, I found the supermarkets to be very similar to any other European country -the brands were slightly different, but there appeared to be a reasonable range and lots of fresh produce.

Food wasn’t the only thing that appeared exaggerated. I read some sections of the book whilst I was staying in the places mentioned and was surprised by the way she described things. Perhaps I’m just not used to the direct comparision between text and landscape, but she saw things in a much more extreme way than I did.

Despite these minor issues I really enjoyed this book. I loved the personal insight into the problems of relocating into such a tight-knit community and her mishaps and adventures were heartwarming and exciting in equal measure. This book probably has limited appeal to the majority of the population, but if you have any interest in Iceland then this book will be a rewarding read.


8 replies on “Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss”

Yeah, not my fave to be honest. As I wrote in my post, she and I occupy very different social spheres – and culinary preferences. From memory, my summary went something like #firstworldproblems 😉

Tony, Yes, I agree with you about the ‘First World Problems’ aspect. I did think she whinged a bit much and I didn’t really understand some of her problems – that is what I meant by my issues with her exaggerating things. After reading the first half of her book I was shocked by how normal the country seemed – she had me believe it was a culinary wasteland, packed with terrible drivers and that wasn’t true at all!

That’s interesting! I wonder if living conditions have really improved since 2009, especially since the global economy seems to be better now than it was then. Or maybe she was exaggerating for humorous effect? I just listened to David Sedaris’ Let’s Talk about Diabetes with Owls and I don’t think people would recognize France from his descriptions. 😉 Such a good idea to read a book like that while you were right there to compare it with reality!

Laurie, I love reading books in the country in which they are set. I make a special effort to seek them out whenever I go travelling and think it really adds something to the reading experience. I recommend giving it a try!

I guess if she was there for the financial crash, things could have been a lot worse. Looking at Britain today, it would be easy to write a book full of struggles, but on the other hand many of us are doing fine and enjoying our country as much as we can.

I’ve read some pretty horrific accounts of Greece and Spain recently but you can still go there on holiday and not really see any of it.

Ellie, That is a good point, but the book doesn’t suggest that is true. She talks about the financial crash and how it affected lives in Iceland (wages dropped, people lost jobs, people struggled to afford things) but she was talking about the lack of food choice etc before the financial crash. I don’t think it made the range smaller, just that people were less able to afford what they needed.

I wonder if authors of these sort of fish-out-of-water memoirs tend to emphasize the differences of the other culture more than might actually be strictly true. Like, there was one grocery store that had limitations, and that somehow got extrapolated into ‘the whole country has limited range of food options.’

Christy, You could be right. I guess people are always going to concentrate on the differences – it would be a very boring book if they just mentioned everything that was the same!

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