Names for the Sea recounts the year that Sarah Moss, her husband, and their two young sons spent living in Iceland. Fortuitously – or not, depending on how you look at it – they arrived during an interesting time for Iceland, with the result of the banking collapse still being felt and the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull – a word I still don’t know how to pronounce. In fact, I’m sure I was probably misreading the Icelandic words throughout the book.
When looking at the impact of the banking crisis, Moss is able to go beyond Icelanders’ perceptions of themselves as a country free from poverty. At first Moss can’t discern any signs of the banking crisis. No one buys anything second hand and she struggles to equip the flat or buy a car without having to buy new. Slowly, however, she is able to peel back the self-deception and discovers that poverty is in fact a reality for a lot of Icelanders. She visits a charity that sells second hand clothes and hands out food parcels, but when she tries to talk to the people in the queue they refuse – it is clearly a source of deep shame.
As well as documenting these events, Moss explores the country’s history. She interviews friends who lived in the Icelandic countryside during the 50s and 60s and talks to a woman whose village was occupied by Allied soldiers during the second world war. Moss is fascinated by the everyday and the domestic and is determined to get to the bottom of how Icelanders survived in the Icelandic countryside before roads, cars, and imported vegetables. These details, about the everyday realities of life in such a harsh place before the comforts of modern life, are fascinating and Moss writes without a hint of romanticisation.
Indeed, despite imported vegetables Moss struggled to cook the food she is used to eating – and isn’t keen on some of the Icelandic delicacies, such as whale and burnt sheep’s head. Finances are also strained – although she is working at the University of Iceland, her wages don’t stretch very far in Iceland. When the family visit England for Christmas Moss admits to revelling in consumerism: it’s good to be home. I take my credit card out and it makes me feel better. A lot better, about everything. Moss isn’t afraid to be honest and her book is all the more relatable for that.
Names for the Sea is not so much a travel book, as a book about being in a place. It is about learning to live in an alien environment and coming to accept – or at least get accustomed to – a whole new set of idiosyncrasies. She doesn’t shy away from describing her day-to-day life. Taking the children to school, work, and shopping are all a part of the process of acclimatising, but at least we are not left wondering: how did they afford it and where are the children? Instead the domestic is ever present. They have a 2 year old with them, so they can’t go climbing mountains, and, in one of the most heart-warming moments in the book, Moss wakes her elder son in the night, dresses him up in layers of clothing, and takes him with her to watch the northern lights from a headland.
As well as being a book about acclimatising, it is also a book about leaving. The final chapter recounts their return trip to Iceland the summer after they leave and at the end of the book Moss says: I’m still not ready to leave Iceland. Moss first visited Iceland as a teenager and that deep love of the places has stayed with her ever since and emanates through the book. It is there in her attentive descriptions of the landscape and in her insistence on learning as much as possible about every facet of the country. As I read that final line I could feel that wrench of having to leave. I can also feel the pull of wanting to visit the place Moss brings to life so vividly in her book.
N.B. Sarah Moss was my tutor on my MA course, so I may be a little bit biased!