I don’t read very much non-fiction, something of a yawning gap I know but there are always so many excellent novels lined up ready and waiting. When I do it tends to be short bursts of travel writing or biography and novelist Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea neatly combines the two.
Circumstances seemed to be right for the Moss family to spend some time living abroad so when Moss spots an advertisement for a lecturer in her field at Iceland’s National University she applies, gets the job and off they go. Having toured Iceland for five weeks as a student – an unusual destination but Moss says she has a fascination with what she calls the ‘northerly isles’ – she has an idea of what to expect but is unprepared for the culture shock of living on an island which often feels like one big village. Iceland has a population of a mere 300,000. Temperatures plummet to a dangerous level in winter and it’s volcanic – remember when European airspace closed down thanks to an eruption on the island? Moss was there – no wonder it’s tightly knit. It’s also full of contradictions: unsurprisingly, it’s an insular community but the Icelandic word for stupid means one that has not travelled. Nearly all young Icelanders jump ship for a time but almost invariably return when they want to raise a family.
Moss manages to both entertain and enlighten. She’s often very funny on both her own befuddlement and the quirks of Icelanders while avoiding the ‘let’s laugh at the funny foreigners’ tricks that some writers indulge in. She’s a curious and insightful observer, able to keep a straight face when talking to a woman who communicates with elves – and 100-metre-tall elves at that – while writing sensitively about the effects of the financial crisis on a proud people living in a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s a fascinating book and as gripping as any novel.