Sarah Moss: Names for the Sea

This book’s subtitle “Strangers in Iceland” should be taken seriously – this is not a travel book, where the narrator goes on a leisurely voyage of exploration and discovery, Instead, it is the story of someone moving from Great Britain to Iceland, and struggling to find their place there, to come to terms with the land and its people. As a result, the Iceland presented in Names for the Sea is as un-exotic as it gets, its narrative for the most part far removed from the touristic gaze, instead directing its attention at the places where things superficially look the same, only to discover the persistently strange in the seemingly familiar.

This is not the book to read for advice on planning your next vacation trip to Iceland; not even the book to read for advice on moving there – Names for the Sea is not out to give practical tips, but chiefly concerns itself with the experience of trying to fit in a foreign country. And as it turns out – and this is probably the most fascinating part about this highly enjoyable book – this experience is not less of a struggle when the culture one attempts to make oneself at home in appears so very similar to one’s own. The book starts off with a kind of prologue, a short description of the author’s visit to Iceland as a 19-year old, then goes on to a description of her one-year stay as lecturer at a university in Reykjavik with her husband and two small children and ends with a kind of epilogue, another visit to Iceland after the author’s return to England which in many ways calls back to her initial visit. From that circular structure it is already noticeable that this is not some random rambling, but that the author has given her narrative a form, and I think one can safely infer from this that Names for the Sea aims for more than being a simple recital of facts, or even a series of travel impressions.

Although the book certainly does offer a phenomenology of Iceland, seen from the perspective of someone who is stranger enough to still keep some distance to what she describes, but at the same time close enough to develop a sense of what it is like to actually live in that country. The major part of the book, between epilogue and prologue, falls I think into two parts (of about equal length) – the first tells of how the author attempts to make a home in Iceland, at first trying to recreate what she used to have back in England, then, as she gradaully realises the impossibility of that, as she and her family are more and more exposed to the realities of living in Iceland, coming to terms and  making their peace with Iceland’s unique environment. The second half sets in when the author and her husband decide to leave Iceland after a year has passed – from then on, her narrative becomes considerably more like a “normal” travel tale, with her visiting interesting locales and interviewing interesting people, the book moves from experience to description (and I also suspect, although that is never explicitly mentioned, that this was also the point where she decided to write a book on her experiences in Iceland, and collecting material for that). But even in the latter part, the reader is always made aware that this is not an objective, detached report, but that a country, the landscape, other people are only accessible as part of a subjective experience. Consequently, we find out a lot about the narrator in the course of this book (who, as this is non-fiction, is presumably identical with the author) which in turns gives the reader some insights into how contemporary British people experience themselves and their place in the world.

But what seems to interest Sarah Moss – what, at least, I found the most fascinating part of Names for the Sea is precisely not the description of a single culture, not even a comparative study on how British and Icelandic ways of life differ. I think the book is more ambitious than that and actually aims for an exploration of how two cultures interact, what it means to be a stranger in a foreign country. She shows the struggle of having to find a place of your own in a place where you do not belong, but also the excitement of it, the discoveries along with the frustrations, and the joy when you finally become comfortable. There is tinge of melancholy at the end when the author and her family visit Iceland again, but it is a bitter-sweet sensation for it shows that after one year of staying there Iceland did manage to some degree become their home.

I read this book on a whim and it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise – not just a travel book but a thoughtful exploration of the borderline between cultures, and an excellently written one, too – there are (mostly in the book’s first part) many intense descriptions of light on the Icelandic landscape and (mostly in the second part) of encounters with various people and places (a visit to the water museum being one of my favourites). I will have to check out one of Sarah Moss’ novels soon.

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