Inspired by a freedom-seeking summer spent in Iceland as a student, Sarah Moss bravely returns to the country a couple of decades later, this time to set up home as a university lecturer with her husband and young family in tow. Most people can claim to have felt the release that being lifted out of our ‘known’ selves by travelling to a foreign, exotic and unfamiliar place can bring; but adapting to the realities of living in that place of escape is quite a different experience alltogether…
Names for the Sea is a thoughtful and reflective memoir which is at times painfully honest as Moss is faced with not only coming to terms with her new and often harsh surroundings but also with herself and her reasons for returning:
“I found the experience of being a foreigner very hard. I didn’t know how to catch a bus or pay a bill, where to buy light-bulbs or calpol. The early days of living abroad are infantilizing, and made harder by a certain kind of Britishness that would rather kill itself (without making a fuss) than make a stupid mistake in public. I talked, one day, to some of my students about this paralyzing sense of idiocy and they, who had almost all lived abroad themselves at some point, told me that the Icelandic word for stupid is ‘heimsku’, one who stays at home. You stop being stupid by embracing your stupidity.“
There are plenty of bleak moments – the Icelandic financial crisis is in full swing – the salaries are low and the prices are high. It’s difficult to find any fresh fruit or vegetables; the cold is biting; their flat is over heated and the children cannot often play outside. The winter days are dark and the nights are long; the birds are menancing; the roads icy and the driving dangerous. The volcano has started to erupt and the solid ground feels precarious.
But there is also a great deal of wonder, naiviety and joy in Moss’s recollections too, especially as she begins to explore different versions of Iceland through the tales of those that live on its land. As she writes on her blog:
“It’s partly about the landscape and seasons; the way we noticed the migratory birds whose passages tell you the seasons almost as reliably as the changing light, winter walks haunted by the aurora borealis, the hours of sunset and sunrise that make summer nights. It’s also about living with the volcano, and the financial crisis, but mostly it’s about the conversations I had with Icelanders when I started to seek answers to my foolish foreign questions. How do you live with a landscape that might come and get you in the night, with boiling geysirs and earthquakes as well as Arctic blizzards and active volcanoes? How do you reconcile the obsession with national independence and separatism with openness? How can you define national identity by physical and emotional toughness while explaining that it’s ‘unIcelandic’ to walk anywhere? Last but not least, who really believes in the Hidden People?“
It is through her ambition and need to discover that Moss really shines and it is through the stories and interactions she has with the wonderful array of characters in the memoir that we also begin to piece together the fragments of her own very personal journey.
Names for the Sea is a perfect Autumn read; a thought-provoking escape from an escape.
Published by Granta books, July 2012