Sarah Moss - Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (3 stars)

Sarah Moss - Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland

A deeply personal account of an Icelandic experience

(Granta)

The high north of Europe has captured the imagination of travellers, artists and writers for centuries, exuding a magnetic pull towards northerly latitudes of medieval sagas, crystalline summer days of endless light and latterly, societies underpinned by apparent fairness, equality and liberal democracy. Inspired by an ecstatic Icelandic summer of early adulthood, Sarah Moss took up a role teaching Romantic poetry and creative writing at the country’s University in 2009. Written after moving to Reykjavík with her husband and young family, Names for the Sea charts a year’s discovery and dislocation against a tapestry of changing seasons, unfamiliar language, food and culture (a story of whale meat mistaken for venison is told with wry acceptance), and most significantly the Icelandic financial collapse, or kreppa.

It is Moss’ inquisitive excursions into the real and imagined Icelandic landscapes that enthral the most: the colonisation of the volcanic island Heimaey, and subsequent evacuations due to pirates and eruptions; the myth and mischief-making surrounding elves which are said to invisibly inhabit rural areas. This book’s most important and valuable sections are those that unpick and largely dispel outside imaginings of Iceland as a frozen Nordic utopia. In tracing the tangles of different experiences of Icelandic people in a post-kreppa society, Moss describes civil unrest, poverty and food banks in Reykjavik, issues rarely reported to the wider world.

Moss is an engaging, expressive writer, drawing dark humour from a year characterised by cold comfort. Occasionally this lava-black wit slips into a vague, claustrophobic sadness – played out in the cramped new-build confines of the family’s temporary residence and the cold, pedestrian-averse city streets – yielding a deeply personal but occasionally frustrating book. There are times when you will the author to throw off her cloak of reserved ‘Britishness’ (her phrase), which seems to repeatedly limit her immersion into (and enjoyment of) Icelandic culture. How far this is possible in a country where – as Moss describes – the distinctions between ‘Icelandic’ and ‘foreigner’ are sharply drawn and rarely blurred, is hard to untangle.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland's paperback release is due on Jul 5 2013.

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