#NordicFINDS – Iceland Week – living the dream?

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!

Eyjafjallajökull 17-4-2010. Bjarki Sigursveinsson, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

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).

15 thoughts on “#NordicFINDS – Iceland Week – living the dream?

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’d not read her NF either – this was entertaining, thoughtful and felt personal. Very enjoyable and interesting.

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I loved this, too, Annabel. Moss captured how it felt to be a bemused outsider, albeit a warmly welcomed one, so well and the interview with the elf woman was hilarious.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Her new friends and colleagues were great weren’t they, which must have made it easier. I didn’t expect to find her writing so witty (apart from the cover quote, which you can’t rely on usually). Lovely book – I want to go there now.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s a great book, and she’s returned to Iceland since, so living there for a year didn’t put her off at all.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was enjoyable, and she managed to get under the skin of the country just enough to complement the memoir aspects of the book.

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    I did enjoy this one – she hadn’t published so much fiction when I read it, I don’t think – but I felt she was a bit dismissive and mocking of the Icelanders. It’s also perfectly possible to get good fruit and veg there in even the cheaper supermarkets. I did enjoy the deep dive into actually living there, though. My review here https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/book-reviews-names-for-the-sea-and-the-tricking-of-freya/ . I would recommend Ed Hancox’ Iceland Defrosted as a personal memoir of spending a lot of time in Iceland, too.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ll be charitable and say she struggled with her local supermarkets without a car, so was more limited in choice! 😀 She obviously felt a conflict with the received wisdom and the lack of visible effects of the ‘kreppa’ at the beginning – not realising that it wasn’t the Icelandic way to share that with strangers. It’s definitely a country I’d like to learn more about, so I’ll look out for your recommendation.

      • Marcie McCauley says:

        I wonder if she was more used to shopping in larger centres: just moving from a small Ontario city to the capital here, just a few years prior to her move there, meant we had FAR more choice for fruit and other select ingredients (fresh herbs and spices in particular!) that were not available readily (or consistently…we might see a single shipment of figs in a year, for instance) where we’d been living before…and ten years have passed since, with the infrastructure for global shipping seemingly endlessly developing (figs are common here, now). But of course I’ve never been there myself–lucky Liz! (And Sarah LOL)

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