Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss

“It’s time for me to read Names for the Sea,” I told the friend who had sent me a copy. Some books are like that, resting placidly in the to-be-read pile for months before suddenly announcing, somehow, that it is time to read them. And indeed it was; despite a personal schedule that veers from hectic to frantic, I zipped through the book in just a couple of days, impatiently awaiting the next time I could take even a few minutes to read a little bit more.

Names for the Sea carries the subtitle Strangers in Iceland, and it tells the story of the year that Sarah Moss and her family spent on that striking island in the North Atlantic, where she taught British literature at the national university. She begins with the story of her six-week trip to Iceland as an adventurous nineteen-year-old: memorable explorations undertaken with a close friend at the opening of adulthood, going as far as they could on a paltry budget, coming back exhausted and invigorated. She had always wanted to go back, yet never did, as she grew up, made a career, got married, had two kids and settled into life in a town in southeast England.

“It was all perfectly nice, and there was no reason why it shouldn’t continue to be perfectly nice for the next thirty years. Then Anthony (her husband) lost his job. Max (her elder son) was unhappy at school. Iceland, sang a newspaper feature read late one night while the children slept, was the happiest country in the world, a Nordic paradise of gender equality, fine schooling and public art. It wasn’t the landscape that pulled us this time – or not only the landscape – but the idea of a better society. According to the website of the National University which I chanced to encounter at work the next day, Iceland needed an expert in nineteenth-century British literature (her specialty).”

“Chanced to encounter” indeed. Who hasn’t entertained that idea? A new place, a new kind of life; it’s seductive, especially if it involves a place already visited and loved. Moss and her family pull up stakes – even if they don’t sell their house back in England. The book tells of their year, from their arrival in July through winter and the growing realization that a potentially open-ended stay is not for them and that it will be just one year, into spring, impending departure, and reconciliation with many of the difficulties.

The year they spent in Iceland, 2009, was also a very particular time in its history: the financial bubble burst with particular ferocity in Iceland, as banks accumulated debt far in excess of the country’s economy, leading to a collapse of the value of its currency. In practical terms, that meant that the external value of Moss’ salary dropped by a third between the time she was hired and the time she arrived. The book spends a fair amount of time looking into the causes and effects of the kreppa, the crash, showing how it came about, how it fit into and reflected the culture, and what it meant for different kinds of Icelanders.

Here are some of the things that my friend who sent me the book liked about Names for the Sea:

“I found the dive into Icelandic culture fascinating. I loved that Moss’ two-year-old child could learn so quickly to speak Icelandic at day-care and English at home. I enjoyed finding out about things like knitting while you walk and elves inhabiting every stone, and wondering where the cultural inhibition against used goods could possibly have come from in a place where new things can be so hard to get, and how people can live on a diet that excludes fruits and vegetables. The physical place amazed me as well: outdoor pools that are warm in winter, volcanoes that invade your living room despite sealed windows, rocks fields containing thin-crusted volcanic bubbles that trap you if you fall through the roof and can’t climb the smooth sides to get out – and the legends that have grown up around all those places. I liked the ways the place had shaped the culture: the population was small and contained in a small area, so developed, e.g., 1) a system of trade based on everyone knowing who had something versus who needed something, and 2) an unshakeable belief in the safety of children (who could get away with hurting them? Where would they kidnap them to?) I liked reflecting on why other cultures in similar locations developed differently. Ultimately, I loved having Moss’ better-than-tourist perspective on Iceland. It held room for the informed awareness of similarities and contrasts between Iceland and other cultures without being so enmeshed that Iceland’s own uniqueness seemed commonplace instead.”

All of that and more.

Moss also shows the experience of moving to a new country with your family, something I have done several times now. It’s never simple, and the complications are not the ones you expect, although there is also a common and observable timetable to people’s reactions to living in a new culture.

“Hagkaup is fascinating in the way that foreign supermarkets are always fascinating, offering a glimpse into other assumptions. It is not international law to start with fruit and vegetable. Hagkaup starts with cosmetics, mostly French and mostly at twice French prices. Then there are two kinds of apple, called ‘red’ … and ‘green’. There are Belgian strawberries, hard and sour, Chilean oranges and bananas.” The next paragraph is a lush description of English fruits and soft summer days, a vision of easy plenty contrasting with Iceland’s starkness, along with the modern solution. “Hagkaup has raspberries – Hagkaup has everything, including zebra steaks and Scottish pheasant, for a price – but they come resting on bubble wrap in a single layer with about a dozen in a packed costing the same as two pounds of fish. Well, we say, of course. We’re on the edge of the Arctic Circle here. Who wants air-freighted fruit anyway?”

That passage shows the fascination and euphoria of the first few weeks, along with hints of the dissatisfaction that often sets in during the second or third months, when one wishes people would react in a normal way and stop being so insistently foreign. Moss and her family do fairly well with navigating these natural hazards, along with some particular to Iceland, such as the high prices of imports and the darkness of the winter. There’s the pre-school that turns out not to be for them, and some difficult keeping up with the Jonses tendencies at the school their older child attends; in both cases, they find a way to match their senses of themselves with their situation and the local culture. Moss also notes feeling greater understanding for immigrant families “back home” who insist on doing things differently from UK norms.

In other cases, I found myself wishing the Moss family either had better institutional support or made better decisions. Towards the end of the book, she notes in an aside that they had spent the whole year sleeping on air mattresses. Yikes! Surely, I thought – as I had earlier in the book for other reasons – they could have gotten a furnished apartment, or gone further toward furnishing it. This can’t have been the first time that the National University had recruited internationally, and it can’t have been a surprise that people, even slightly nomadic academics, will want to sleep in real beds.

I bring up this minor detail for two reasons: first, Names for the Sea is a better book because Moss shares so many details, building up a fuller picture of her life in Iceland, and thus Iceland itself; and second because the family are not characters on a page, but real people. In fact Moss is a friend of a friend – the mutual friend is Alec, who appears starting on page 244, bringing laughter and later going along with some slightly implausible activities regarding Iceland’s elves. For whatever reasons, Moss seems reluctant to accept help beyond a certain point, and that seems to have made their time in Iceland more challenging than it needed to have been. After time in five different countries that I didn’t grow up in, I’ve come to the conclusion that if people want to help you settle in, you should let them. It doesn’t matter that you can’t reciprocate; they almost certainly don’t want that, and the least that one can do is accept it all with good grace. So you don’t end up on air mattresses for years at a time. (Elves?)

The challenge of the “trailing spouse” is also well known to international organizations, if not always to organizations that recruit internationally. Moss never says what kind of job her husband, Anthony, lost that made relocating a possibility. Nor does she say much about what he’s getting up to while she is teaching at the university, particularly once their younger child is in day-care, as apparently all Icelandic children of that age are. To someone who is used to paying attention to what a book doesn’t discuss as well as what it does discuss, this seemed a significant gap, particularly because the contentment of a trailing spouse is known to be crucial to a lasting international appointment.

There is another facet of Icelandic culture that recurs: “What is outside is dangerous. Yule Lads, hidden people, molten lava, boiling quicksand, blizzards pouring black cloud across a blue sky, aurora sweeping the mountainside like searchlights. The doomed man thrown by his horse and refusing to go into exile, refusing to become an outlaw in the wilderness.” Her list doesn’t quite include “foreigners,” but there are enough anecdotes elsewhere in the book to suggest that many Icelanders would, perhaps unconsciously, add that word.

Moss captures the rhythms of the first year of adjusting to a new culture, along with many specific things about Iceland: the landscape, the legends, the visitors, the small habits that mark the days – knitting during meetings, or quoting casually from the sagas – as well as things that Icelandic people, at least in the circles that she moves, tend to hide from themselves, whether that’s the role that Celtic slaves played in centuries past or the prevalence of violence today. The book is enriching, engrossing, and thought-provoking.

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  1. […] city hides behind Kalmar-built walls because Hrimland is far more filled with magic than Iceland, and that magic is typically much more malevolent. Not that people haven’t found ways to deal […]

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