Book Review: Names for the Sea

Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss is that rare thing, a book about expat life in Iceland. Sarah spent a year there in 2009-2010, teaching at the University. Of course this was annamesfortheseainteresting point in Icelandic history, with both the Kreppa and the Eyjafjallajokull eruptions.

I was so excited to read this book, as the only other good English language book of this type that I’ve come across is Ripples from Iceland, which is now 50 years old.

Moss is there with her husband and two small children, living in an unfinished development in Garðabær. The initial things that she notices are the shortage of good quality fresh fruit and vegetables, the lack of secondhand anything to buy and the fact that they are pretty much the only people without a car or two or three. Colleagues and acquaintances are helpful and show her the Icelandic way of acquiring things, through the huge extended network that anyone local would have.

It’s hard for her to notice the kreppa too much as a foreigner, as everyone she knows still seems to be spending excessively, driving huge cars and leaving the windows open all the time so the abundant heating can go out the window. Unfortunately it means her salary has been severely cut, meaning financial worries for the duration of the stay, and knowing that they cannot stay for more than a year.

One of their first jobs is to manage finding the right school and daycare. It becomes obvious how overprotected British children are and how much we worry about things that haven’t happened to them. The children settle in quicker than the parents as is always the case and become the better Icelandic speakers.

She learns a lot about living in a small population through her students, often inadvertently. They are mortified at an exercise involving talking to strangers, and horrified at the thought of selling their own goods rather than taking them to the dump or charity shop in case anyone they know buys them and has to feel embarrassed. They wouldn’t dream of going to the National Museum until she drags them there, but then are proud of the fact that everything there is actually Icelandic and not stolen from someone else’s culture as in most large and famous museums.

The subject of foreigners generally is a bit of a touchy one, as with the financial crisis more Icelanders require aid than ever before, and there is controversy about putting aid for Icelandic nationals ahead of foreigners. Visiting a food bank with one of the students, she finds everyone there is ashamed to be there and no one wants to talk about it. The student is more surprised than she is that there is poverty here.

Ultimately, the family does get a car as despite the expense it is worth it for the weather, and they do get out of Reykjavík, but only a little bit. I can appreciate that with a full-time job and two children it may have been easier not to venture out too much, but I wished they had. She does meet some interesting people on her travels and finds out about life during WWII and elves amongst other things.

The end of her stay is somewhat marred by volcanic eruptions stopping friends from visiting or Sarah attending job interviews outside of Iceland, although ironically this is also the time when they seem to travel the most within Iceland. Ultimately, leaving Iceland brings mixed emotions of sadness and relief.

This is a great book if you are looking for something beyond a travel guide that isn’t fiction. It’s a realistic, honest account of one family’s experiences during a year in Iceland.

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