Book Review: Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland
by Sarah Moss

Publication date: September 1st 2013
Publisher: Granta Books
Pages: 368


Sarah Moss had a childhood dream of moving to Iceland, sustained by a wild summer there when she was nineteen. In 2009, she saw an advertisement for a job at the University of Iceland and applied on a whim, despite having two young children and a comfortable life in Kent. The resulting adventure was shaped by Iceland’s economic collapse, which halved the value of her salary, by the eruption of Eyjafjallaj√∂kull and by a collection of new friends, including a poet who saw the only bombs fall on Iceland in 1943, a woman who speaks to elves and a chef who guided Sarah’s family around the intricacies of Icelandic cuisine. Moss explored hillsides of boiling mud and volcanic craters and learned to drive like an Icelander on the unsurfaced roads that link remote farms and fishing villages in the far north. She watched the northern lights and the comings and goings of migratory birds, and as the weeks and months went by, she and her family learned new ways to live.

Source: Goodreads


I went to Iceland with a group of friends in November 2016 and was fascinated by the country, its natural landscape, food and customs. Unaffected by historical invasions, Iceland has a unique culture and way of life. I knew very little about Iceland before I went and having now finished “Names for the Sea”, I’m glad I didn’t read this before as I would have seriously lowered my expectations.

In 2009, Literature professor Sarah Moss moves her family to Iceland to work and her book “Names for the Sea” gives us an insight into their life in a new country. In order to find out more about her new surroundings, Sarah is introduced to a number of Icelandic ‘experts’ by her new friends and colleagues. She curiously visits someone to tell her about the stories of Icelandic elves, someone to talk about the details of knitting and even someone to help explain the complex political situation. Some of the people she speaks to have fascinating stories and offer an interesting glimpse of Icelandic culture.

Unfortunately the rest of the book is not gripping and certainly not entertaining. Overly anxious, the family find living in Iceland difficult; repeatedly moaning about the foods available in the supermarkets, the lack of second hand sales and the dangerous driving on Icelandic roads. She bemoans the fact that she can’t cheaply buy used furniture or walk everywhere with her toddler and buggy. While I’m sure these feelings were real and seemed important to the family at the time, for an outsider looking into someone’s year of life abroad, they are dull. I don’t care about domestics and these complaints popped up throughout which made the author seem moany and somewhat unlikable, particularly when seeking the unapparent evidence of the economic crisis.

“There is plenty of cabbage, but it seems to have come a long way and got very tired. Even in Hagkaup, fruit is often squashy, courgettes wrinkled and sour, cabbage leaves floppy as damp towels.”

A lot of the book was repetitive; among others, the concept of “window weather” (weather looks deceivingly beautiful) was mentioned many times. The chapters which were not repetitive were long and dragged out and this book would have benefited from being approximately half its size. From these specific details you can tell that Moss passionately loves Iceland, its people and culture, but there were just too many instances of her going off on a tangent which seemed to never end. I almost gave up but not one to leave a book unfinished, I had to continue to find out whether they stayed.

I didn’t enjoy Moss’ style of writing. Having not read any of her fiction I don’t know if this style is personal or specific to this book. One of the things I found most frustrating was that almost the whole book was written in the present tense and I really couldn’t understand why.

Overall rating:  I found “Names for the Sea” to be full of interesting facts and details of Icelandic culture, historical background and family stories. Yet the story was padded out with boring details of supermarket struggles and domestic complaints. I’ll be giving Sarah Moss‘ “Names for the Sea” 2 stars.

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