‘Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland’ is Sarah Moss’s account of living in Reykjavik for a year between 2009 and 2010. Moss first visited Iceland as a child and later with a friend when she was nineteen during a university summer holiday. Some fifteen years later and now married with two young sons, she applied for a job at the University of Iceland teaching Romantic poetry and creative writing as a visiting lecturer and fulfilled a childhood dream of moving to the country with her family.
Before reading ‘Names for the Sea’, I had a relatively limited amount of knowledge of modern Iceland, associating the country with failing banks, troublesome volcanos, the music of Björk and Sigur Rós and being very, very cold. With the exception of music, all of these things and much more are covered in Moss’s account of adjusting to life as an expat in suburban Reykjavik which offers a fascinating insight into everyday life in Iceland during one of the most turbulent years of its modern history. The financial crisis – or kreppa as it’s known in Icelandic – saw the value of Moss’s salary halved before she even arrived, while the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull brought air travel throughout Europe to a standstill when the resulting ash cloud spread across the continent, thwarting many of her travel plans.
‘Names of the Sea’ isn’t just about Iceland as such – it’s also a perceptive and witty account of the challenges of living abroad for a year. As well as the extreme climate and unique landscape, food proves to be one of the biggest culture shocks with very little fresh fruit and vegetables available. Other notable topics include a comparison between the British and Icelandic education systems, the widespread belief in elves (yes, really) and the national obsession with knitting.
For me, the most interesting aspects of the book were the apparent contradictions of Icelandic cultural attitudes. For example, the lack of visible poverty during the financial crisis due to the taboo surrounding the purchase of second-hand goods as well as widespread resistance towards using public transport in a country which has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world. Moreover, the Icelandic crime rate is largely in proportion with the rest of Western Europe yet attitudes towards safety are far more relaxed (passengers travelling with Air Iceland are allowed to carry up to five kilos of ammunition on board a plane without a permit).
‘Names for the Sea’ is an entertaining account covering a broad range of domestic, historic, academic and socio-economic aspects of a year in Reykjavik. I enjoyed Moss’s honest, personal and self-deprecating take on life in Iceland, balancing affection for the country and its culture with a fair amount of criticism. I look forward to reading her novels including ‘Night Waking’, ‘Bodies of Light’ and ‘Signs for Lost Children’.