Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss
Novelist Sarah Moss fell in love with Iceland during a trip with a friend as a student. Years later, she was beginning to get itchy feet at the University of Kent and began looking for a job abroad. It just so happened that her husband lost his job just as a one-year post at the University of Iceland was advertised for an expert in ‘nineteenth-century English literature’, and off she, Anthony, and sons Max and Tobias went.
They arrive a month with a handful of boxes of essentials before the new academic year begins to give time to find their feet. Everything has the potential to be a challenge – there isn’t really a property rental market for starters, everyone buys in Iceland. But they are found an apartment in an unfinished block close enough to the university, and buy air-beds and garden furniture. The unfinished development is one of many abandoned as they arrived at the time of ‘kreppa’ – the word for getting into a squeeze being adopted for that time when the Icelandic banks were in crisis in 2008. Supermarket shopping is a challenge – the quality of the imported fruit and veg is awful, even in the most expensive establishments. Moss has an interest in food, having written non-fiction about food history before her novels – food also pictures strongly in her fiction debut Cold Earth (reviewed here). Getting around is another challenge – they’ll give in and buy a car eventually, but driving in Reykjavik is very, very, very scary!
But she loves the landscape, its rugged coastline shaped by lava flows, the Northern lights of course, the swimming in geothermic pools under the sky, yet during their stay there this year, they don’t go more than a day’s travel from Reykjavik, and the eruption of volcano Eyjafjallajökul, the ash from which shut down so many European flights during 2010 didn’t help.
She enjoys her teaching, especially as the students are a range of ages although class sizes are large, but she struggles to get them to discuss the works they’re reading – it’s not the Icelandic way. Moss doesn’t overdo the academic side of her life in Iceland though; how she and her family manage all the little day to day challenges are much more interesting and she so witty writing about them, contrasting with the Icelanders’ seemingly imperturbable characters. Icelandic authors however, constantly surprise her, she’d brought a stack of books in translation with her to read:
In apparently gentle novels of bourgeois life, characters rape and ill with no warning, no reflection and little reaction from anyone else. I find the violent episodes entirely unpredictable, never know at the beginning of a paragraph if the person coming through the door is bringing coffee or a crowbar to the person sitting at the table. I wonder why a society distinctive for its low crime rate should produce novels and films in which family life is invariably punctuated by bloodletting. Are Icelanders simmering with rage under their jumpers?
Another thing that perplexes is the lack of a second hand market for anything other than cars. They’d arrived hoping to furnish their apartment with second hand furniture and appliances, to buy pre-loved clothes for the growing boys and so on but had no joy on that front. They were lucky to be able to borrow a fridge from a colleague. It seems that it is not the Icelandic way to sell on things no longer needed to strangers. There is a perception of potential shame, on both buyer and seller, if say you were to spot someone wearing your unwanted coat – a distinct possibility given the relatively small and concentrated population of Icelandic cities. That attitude appears to be easing somewhat now given younger generations concerns with the environment.
During her year in Iceland, Moss also goes off to interview a variety of Icelanders, including a woman who believes in Elves – really, and a wool pioneer who tells her that the traditional Icelandic jumper is less than a century old. More seriously, she tries to explore the effects of ‘kreppa’, talking to both left and right wing young activists, but it’s not until near the end of the year that she sees the queues for a food bank – queuing is not the Icelandic way that she finds the evidence she was expecting of the hardship that the banking crisis caused. Such seriousness provides the balance to their attempts to be accepted in Iceland, she is disappointed that she hasn’t learnt more of the language, as she teaches in English and most speak it.
There was one little episode late on in the book which made me burst out laughing aloud. It’s the end of the year, and Moss is giving away much of the stuff they brought with them or bought in Iceland before their return home to her new job in Cornwall…
I give away the cutlery my grandmother stole from aeroplanes in the 1980s, which no-one has been able to dispose of because it’s perfectly serviceable, although everyone in the family now has proper sets. One of the students cannot remember metal cutlery on aeroplanes. No, I tell him, it wasn’t a more innocent age, only one whose terrors didn’t include cutlery at 36,000 feet. (But I keep the four-pronged fork and serrated knife from El-Al, all the same.)
My mum used to ‘borrow’ airplane cutlery too! I wrote a post about it here after she died!
If you’ve read Helen Russell’s excellent The Year of Living Danishly (reviewed here), you’ll find many similarities between the Danes and Icelanders, the latter don’t seem to do ‘hygge’ though and there’s no Lego factory of course. While Russell’s book was more the journalist’s take on Denmark, Moss’s was more personal. The blend of memoir combined with travelogue and reportage was tilted towards memoir in Moss’s book, which also had more engagement with her family’s situation and their surroundings, a different kind of insight which I very much enjoyed. Highly recommended.
Source: Own copy. Granta paperback, 368 pages. BUY at Amazon via my affiliate link (not currently available at Blackwell’s).