Updated on September 16, 2018
33. ‘Names for the Sea’ by Sarah Moss
In 2009, the year of the global financial crisis, Sarah Moss moved to Iceland with her husband and two children. She had got a job at the university there, so for a year they decided to try out an entirely new life – one featuring dramatic landscapes, unfamiliar extremes of weather and a culture they would gradually come to understand and love. Names for the Sea is Sarah Moss’s account of that incredible year.
I recommended Names for the Sea in my post ‘Books for autumnal weather‘ because this book is simply saturated with descriptions of nature and weather. The Moss family go through the whole gamut during their year in Iceland: biting winds, freezing conditions, sunlight until midnight and sunset in the mid-afternoon, the northern lights and even the eruption of a volcano! I think it’s impossible not to be charmed by Moss’s vivid descriptions of Iceland’s nature. I’ve always found her writing gorgeously descriptive, and in this book she really flexes her descriptive muscles.
But Names for the Sea isn’t all about grand spectacle. Moss is also brilliant at describing the smaller, often mundane details of daily life. What are you supposed to do with two primary-school-aged boys all weekend when it’s too dark/cold/ashy to go outside? How do you live cheaply day to day in a country that doesn’t have a secondhand market for anything? And what does it feel like to be a foreigner in a strange land? This book doesn’t just give you a sense of the landscape of Iceland, but also what it actually feels like to live there, as a fish out of water, as a middle-class Brit careening between liberal sensitivity and a certain in-built superiority. Moss doesn’t shy away from confronting her own feelings and considering why she reacts the way she does. For that reason she’s very much the central character of this story – it’s a deeply personal book.
Moss also makes an effort to include plenty of other people’s stories too. Throughout the year she interviews various people – Icelandic locals and those who have married into the culture – about everything from knitting to fairies to food to history. This builds up into a fascinating picture of Icelandic life throughout the centuries, and includes the 2008 protests against government corruption that didn’t go down quite like any other protests I’ve ever heard about (you’ll have to read the book to find out more!). There’s just so much interesting detail in Names for the Sea: how Icelanders drive, what they eat, when they have children, how they behave at university, how they think about themselves in relation to the rest of the world.
This book is packed. Every page, every paragraph is interesting and well written and dripping with atmosphere. If you want to know more about Iceland or Sarah Moss or living abroad, or you just want a bloody good read for colder weather, you have to try Names for the Sea.
“The northern sky, dark over the sea, is mottled with green that spreads like spilt paint, disappears and spreads again. … I tread water, and watch.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Names for the Sea here.
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