Names for the Sea, by Sarah Moss
I grabbed this book because it is set in Reykjavik, and I’ve always been fascinated by Iceland and Reykjavik, even since seeing (and now owning) the decidedly odd Dogme 95–type movie, 101 Reykjavik, directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Having worked my way through quite a few novels and movies set in Iceland and (by inference) Denmark, I was intrigued to know why someone would go and take a sabbatical in Reykjavik at the height of the world financial crisis in 2009 and the particularly severe aftermath of that in Iceland in 2009.
Landing up in a kreppa
According to Wikipedia, in the years 2003–2007, following the privatization of the banking sector, Iceland moved toward having an economy based on financial services and investment banking but was hit hard by the 2008–2011 Icelandic financial crisis. In 2008, affected by the worldwide financial crisis, the nation’s entire banking system systemically failed and all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks collapsed following their difficulties in refinancing their short-term debt and a run on deposits in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland’s systemic banking collapse is the largest experienced by any country in economic history. The crisis resulted in the greatest migration from Iceland since 1887, with a net emigration of 5,000 people in 2009. Iceland’s economy stabilised and grew by 1.6% in 2012. Many Icelanders, however, have remained unhappy with the state of the economy and government austerity policies. Moss writes:
“I still haven’t found the kreppa [the financial crisis]. I feel like a poor person here, the only one who can’t afford a cup of coffee, who brings sandwiches to work and mends her children’s clothes. It’s normal for the UK, I tell friends who observe us rationing use of our pay-as-you-go phones, walking to save petrol, turning the heating down. But it doesn’t seem to be normal for Iceland. (p. 265)
Names for the sea, snow and wind
Into this simmering volcano, literally and figuratively, of an island, came Moss, her husband and two toddlers – she is there to teach English Literature to Icelandic university students. Do not be mistaken by the title: Icelanders do not have an enormous number of names for the sea, despite their country being an island. As one Icelandic writer commented, they have a lot of names for wind, since it is a very windy place, and for snow, for the same reason – but not as many as the Sami people have. The name reflects Moss’s preoccupation with trying to find words for the raw, windblown, barren scenery of the island and the ever-present sea – and master the local language. While her children learn Icelandic fast, right up to the end of the book, Moss confesses that she is too embarrassed to express herself in Icelandic. The city is dominated by its environment – the changing seasons, the sea, the wind, the tree-less volcanic landscape. Moss is disarmingly frank in her retelling of their year in Reykjavik, recounting her misunderstandings, numerous faux pas and sense of alienation combined with liberation.
“The day passes through landscapes that simply don’t make sense, mountains the mind can’t read. It’s like watching God in the act of creation, passing through fells of bare naked lava and rock, like seeing the world before it was finished. We’re on day four of creation, moving back towards day three, a world made of sky, fire, earth and water with none of the complications that come later. The mountains are red, as if the cinders haven’t yet cooled, or the black of embers, carved by valleys where it seems that if you watched long enough, you’d see that the rock is still flowing.” (p. 338)
Reading at times like a well-plotted novel, the memoir is captivating and filled with studied, poetic observations on all aspects of their life in Iceland – from the kreppa (which she does eventually encounter), to knitting, childcare, elves or “hidden people” (yes, including a tree-elf called Oli), to politics and volcanic eruptions. Formed by their island, the Icelanders come across as self-sufficient, non-ironic, egalitarian and open-hearted. No wonder then, that Moss’s final words are that she is not yet ready to leave the island that she had come to call home.
PS: The cover is not a bunch of islands in the sea, it’s humans in swimming costumes in one of Reykjavik’s famous outdoor thermal pools, probably The Blue Lagoon. Also, read more about the Sami people’s many words for snow, and my own poems on those words, here.
About the author
Oxford University graduate Sarah Moss’s own website explains more about why she wrote the book and what the family’s year-long stay was like. Moss is a novelist, travel writer and academic, teaching in the University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing. Her three other novels; Bodies of Light (2014), Night Waking (2011) and Cold Earth (2009) – all published by Granta – have been as well received as Names for the Sea. Night Waking was chosen as one of the winners in the Fiction Uncovered promotion for 2011, and was the Mumsnet Book of the Month for May 2012. Names for the Sea was the Mumsnet Book of the Month for July 2013. It was shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2013. Moss is also the co-author of Chocolate: A Global History. She spent 2009-10 as a visiting lecturer at the University of Reykjavik, which led to her writing Names for the Sea.