Life is dark, exotic in Iceland


This is a compelling portrait of both a country and an author.

The population of Iceland is about half that of North Dakota. It hangs from the Arctic Circle like a pearl on a chain, farther north than Nome, Alaska. It owes its vitality to the Mid-Atlantic Rift and the Gulf Stream, which passes to the west of Ireland and then loops around Iceland. When Norwegian Vikings discovered it in the 9th century, it looked green and hospitable, and so it proved. Despite climate change and major volcanic eruptions, Iceland has been generating a vibrant, idiosyncratic culture for 1,100 years, and for much of that time, writers from other countries have been visiting and gawking.

The latest of these is Sarah Moss, the English author of the novels Night Waking and Cold Earth (about Greenland). In 2009, Moss uprooted her husband and two young boys and took them to a land that had always fascinated her, thinking, perhaps, that they would live there forever. Names for the Sea is Moss’ record of that year.

It was not a good year to be moving to Iceland. In October of 2008, authorities took control of the country’s largest banks, the government subsequently collapsed, the citizens of Iceland refused to be held accountable for the debts of their high-flying bankers, and the world financial system threatened to cut off all credit to a nation that was as overextended as any in the world. And yet Moss was hard put to discover much that changed. Names for the Sea is, therefore, a fascinating portrait of the ephemeral and the permanent. It is also an interesting portrait of Moss herself, who is an odd mix of intrepid and hesitant — always honest and superbly observant.

Moss’ quest is for something authentically Icelandic, and she and her family end up in a large, empty condominium in a newly constructed building outside Reykjavik, where there are no neighbors and no sidewalks, and finding public transportation is an arduous daily effort.

An avid cook, she has little access to vegetables and fruit, and she must nervously avoid speeding SUVs as the family works through the practicalities of modern Icelandic life. Her students, educated in the open but rigorous Icelandic system, are more like colleagues than wards. Most of them have their own children.

“I am not the only parent reading” Wordsworth, she writes. “Mothers … have less patience with Keats. Older women are more likely to notice Austen’s deep skepticism about marriage.” Her classes are large, but if she wants to try something new, her colleagues encourage her to go ahead. Unlike in England, she does not “have to fill in forms specifying learning outcomes, teaching methods, implications for resources, contact hours and primary and secondary reading lists.”

Most important, once the summer solstice has passed, the light fades day by day until, in November, every moment of daylight is precious. By 2 p.m., the sun has gone down, the birds have disappeared and “the sea is silent.” The moon rises as she begins preparations for dinner.

Moss is shy about her weak proficiency in Icelandic, but she is drawn by her persistent curiosity into interviewing as many Icelanders as she can. She is also intimidated by the dangers of driving, but there are rewards to getting out of Reykjavik. One is the exotic scenery: “Streams glimmer down the sides of valleys lined with brighter grass. The farmhouses here are wooden, with painted lace under the eaves, and sometimes there is a white church on a knoll, with a bell shining in the low sun.” She explores the volcano, Eyjafjallajkull, that erupted in the spring of 2010.

But what really interests her is beings in the landscape that not everyone can see. First, she talks to Vilborg, a wonderful storyteller, about pre-World War II Icelandic ways (including, but not limited to, ghosts, huldufolk and other strange or tragic creatures). Then she meets Prunn, who tells her about the local elves. Moss feels herself almost believing in these inhabitants, said to be the descendants of pre-Scandinavian settlers.

One of my favorite chapters concerns knitting. Icelanders are avid knitters. Her students knit in class, knitting shops are luxurious, knitting circles are everywhere, and investigating knitting brings Moss to a deeper understanding of what is really going on in a world where everything is strangely clean and prosperous on the surface. What draws the reader along, page after page, is Moss’ eagerness to explore — she is not much put off by inconvenience; if she can’t get where she wants to go the first or second time, she keeps trying until she gets there — and her stylistic precision in depicting the results of her quest.

Reading Names for the Sea is like taking a long trip with an idiosyncratic friend. She is sometimes annoying but always herself, always illuminating.

Jane Smiley reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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