NAMES FOR THE SEA – STRANGERS IN ICELAND by Sarah Moss (Granta Books, 2012)
Sarah Moss is an Oxford University graduate who now teaches literature.
This book charts her experiences after being appointed visiting lecturer for a year at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.
It tells of the upheaval and culture shock after moving from her home in Canterbury with her two young sons and husband.
This is not a travel guide to Iceland but one woman’s relatively modest experiences of trying (and largely failing) to immerse herself in a country whose citizens mostly prefer to keep themselves to themselves.
She makes no claims to this being anything more than a subjective viewpoint of a woman who is not naturally gregarious or adventurous. She is philosophical about any errors it contains, reasoning that “part of being a foreigner is to be wrong”.
Her self-effacing personality is pleasantly unassertive at first but I soon found her coyness and false modesty irritating. “I’d make a terrible journalist”, she writes, but what is this book if it not an extended piece of journalism? After all, she includes chapters based on interviews which discuss the Icesave dispute, the national passion for knitting and whether or not elves are real.
I found the lack of a broader outlook frustrating. For example, she comments that restaurants are too expensive for public sector workers but doesn’t say (or can’t be bothered to find out) who can afford to eat out regularly.
The details of her day-to-day life in Reykjavik are at best sketchy and ,at worst, confusing. Her house husband is a strangely peripheral figure. She describes how the family moved into a newly built block of flat as the first (and only) residents then later makes a passing reference to neighbours without saying who they are and when they arrived.
As a legal alien myself (a ‘staniero‘ in Italy) I can empathize with her feelings of being forever on the outside looking in but her reluctance to be a pushy foreigner is ultimately debilitating to the story she wants to tell.
“Iceland has complexities so subtle that their existence is invisible to an inattentive foreigner” she says, and, on a linguistic level, this is exemplified by the fact that there is no Icelandic word for ‘please’ and a limited vocabulary of “rude words”.
Her refusal to mock local customs and attitudes (“I feel as if I’m not allowed to find things funny here”) is laudable but too often makes her observations blandly objective or just plain dull. Ultimately, she reveals herself as being a master of the very English art of disapproving while maintaining a veneer of ‘niceness’ .
Moss expresses a disdain for casual tourists who get only a superficial perspective on history and culture but doesn’t really dig so much deeper herself. She is forced to admit that a more authentic insight in such a brief period of time is largely impossible: “I want, I suppose, an unmediated Iceland, even though I know there is no such thing”.
Icelanders are criticised for their reckless driving but praised for their resilience and pragmatism. The absence of gender discrimination is another plus for the country although she hints that Icelandic men may have a brooding resentment against feminism that lies hidden behind closed doors.
Living on such an exposed and vulnerable island means that being at the mercy of the elements is taken for granted by and extreme weather is not something to grumble about or be afraid of. The locals grow up with an innate respect for Mother Nature.
I was left with the impression that Sarah Moss and the Icelanders share the characteristics of being both outward looking and insular.