Notes from a Cold Island

As most of you will know, I’m a keen advocate of literature from all over the world, with my interests jumping around from country to country (although I always come back to Germany and Japan eventually).  My most recent obsession is writing from Iceland; I’ve read several books from the country already this year, and there are plenty more to come.  Which meant that when I was made aware of the book in the photo, I just had to take a closer look – especially as I wasn’t quite sure if I was supposed to read it or wear it…

Sarah Moss’ Names for the Sea (review copy received from Granta Books) is a travel book about a year the writer recently spent living in Iceland.  At the end of her first year of university, many moons ago, she travelled around the country with a friend and always intended to pay a second, longer visit.  When an opening came up for a lecturer at the University of Iceland, she decided that it was the perfect opportunity to move her family away for a while – goodbye Canterbury, hello Reykjavik 🙂

Unfortunately though, her timing could have been a little bit better.  You see, Moss took up her position in Reykjavik in the middle of 2009, right at the heart of the global financial crisis.  Iceland,  previously one of the wealthiest (and smuggest) countries on earth, was faced with a devalued currency and a lot of belt-tightening (meaning that Moss’ salary was suddenly worth a lot less than she’d been expecting).  It also happens that during her time abroad, one of Iceland’s volcanoes decided to erupt, showering the country with ash and causing havoc with European airspace…

The writer and her family had more important things to worry about though.  While the volatility of both the Kronur and Eyjafjallajökull was unexpected, the culture shock was a much bigger problem.  Moss had to come to terms with a country where people are very suspicious of outsiders, lax in keeping an eye on their children and seemingly unable to indicate at all when driving.  Add to this the fact that the weather keeps you inside for much of the year, and you can see that life in the frozen north is not as idyllic as Moss had hoped.  And then there’s the food…

Moss is a novelist, and it shows.  Names for the Sea is well written with excellent pacing, and is story-like at times.  As the book progresses, the reader is taken deeper and deeper into Icelandic society and culture, learning to look beneath the surface at the same time the writer does.  At first glance, there is no sign in Iceland of the Kreppa (the collapse of the Icelandic economy).  In a proud, equal society, happy to be different from the rest of the world, the natives continue with their disposable culture, their love of big cars (and disdain of buses) and a distinct lack of second-hand goods.

A little digging though shows that things are not quite as rosy as they appear.  As Moss gets to know the country, and the people, better, she is able to delve into the invisible cracks in the society.  She learns of a charity depot and sees people receiving food parcels on her visit.  She hears of violence towards women and the true crime statistics, surprising in a country where women have apparently broken through the glass ceiling.  Eventually, she also finds out more about Icesave, the plan to compensate foreign investors for the money the collapsed Icelandic banks took from them – and discovers that not everyone is happy to foot the bill…

Names for the Sea is a great read for anyone interested in Iceland, but there’s a lot more to it than that.  The fact that Moss has uprooted her family and dumped them in a foreign environment means that there are additional pressures to the ones we expect to find in travel writing.  As well as coping with a new job, there is also the small matter of placing two young children in schools and playgroups.  In addition to learning a new language (although that is not particularly necessary for English speakers in Iceland), the writer is forced to start from scratch, furnishing a rented apartment with no car, little money and scant knowledge of local shopping customs.  I don’t envy her.

However, especially in the first third of the book, I don’t particularly sympathise that much either – you see, it may just be me, but I don’t think she always comes across too well.  While she can recognise her cultural limitations with a wry smile at times…

“Get over it, I find myself unfairly thinking, able to identify someone else’s whingeing where my own complaints are obviously those of a normal person presented with weirdness.” p.115 (Granta Books, 2012)

…at others she appears oblivious to how annoying and elitist she sounds.  For example, when packing for a move to Iceland, I certainly wouldn’t be opting for:

“…five litres of olive oil, a dozen tins of anchovies and a dozen jars of capers…” p.14

When she then opts to leave the toaster at home, I begin to sense that Ms. Moss and I move in different social strata…

There’s more to this than a gourmet unwilling to settle for bland food though.  Her smuggling of food through customs (and the smug way in which she does so) grates, and comments like the following (made about her sons daycare hours)…
“We extend his hours, but not much, not to Icelandic levels, because we still know best.” p.69
…indicate someone who, at heart, believes that she is right, and that they (whoever they may be) are wrong.
This passes though, and it’s tempting to think that Moss (the writer) has created Moss (the character), a woman whose arrogance is tempered the longer she stays in Iceland.  Certainly, once the claustrophobic winter is over, and there is more opportunity to travel and meet the natives, the style changes.  The book becomes more about the country and the problems it faces than the writer’s issues with settling down in an unfamiliar environment.

Overall, Names for the Sea is a very good book, informative, thought-provoking and well written.  It’s a shame that Moss was unable to stay for longer than one year, as more time spent in Iceland would probably have led to an even deeper understanding of the natives.  Of course, no matter how long you spend in a country, you’re unlikely to uncover all of its secrets (after a decade in Australia, I’m not even close…).  In one of her classes at the university, Moss discusses travel writing with her students, telling them:

“Home… is the paper on which travel writes.  Travel writers are always writing home.” p.110
The more I think about Names for the Sea, the more fitting this information becomes.  As much as the book is about its subject, it also says a lot about the writer…

11 thoughts on “Notes from a Cold Island

  1. I'm planning to go to Iceland next year and so have a real passion for Icelandic books at the moment. I loved her novel, Night Waking, so this is straight to the top of my 'must buy' list. Thanks for reviewing it!


  2. Jackie – I've read a good number of Icelandic books this year, so this was a good supplement to the fiction. It's a good book, but at times, when the writer talks about her family's issues… well, the Twitter hashtag #firstworldproblems comes to mind 😉


  3. This sounds interesting, Tony, and I appreciate you pointing out Moss's personal shortfallings — she sounds slightly prejudiced, but if she can be honest enough to write about her feelings, then that can only be a good thing. And, bloody hell, Iceland is only a few hours' flight away from the UK… I'd like to see her move to Australia! *nod, nod, wink, wink*

    Glad to see you're enjoying some Icelandic fiction — I've been going through a Nordic phase recently too. As you know, I recently read Jón Kalman Stefánsson's Heaven and Hell, which I highly recommend — I think you'd love it.


  4. Kim – As you may have guessed, this was the book that prompted my post on negative reviews a few weeks back – it actually got better after that, but at one point, I was starting to think that I would have to be brutally, bluntly honest about it…

    And yes, Oz is a lot more of a trek 😉

    I did actually request a review copy of 'Heaven and Hell' (no response!), but I'll have a look on my library database as they're usually pretty good.

    Once I've gone through a few more Icelandic books, I may widen my scope. Per Pettersson sounds like one I should be trying…


  5. Oh yes, Per Petterson is THE man! I love him. Very dark, melancholy and occasionally violent. But there's something about the way he captures the complicated relationships between siblings or between parents and children that makes his work so great. I'm sure you would love him.


  6. Oh, I do like the sound of this one. I love memoirs by people who find themselves transplanted in a different culture which turns out not to be quite what they expected. I like the way they negotiate their way through the cultural differences, especially when they're a bit uppity at first. I might have to seek this book out.


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