Near the end of her beautifully written memoir of a year in Iceland, Sarah Moss gently chides herself for the things she’s left undone. “We haven’t bathed in a natural hot spring,” she writes. “I haven’t learned to knit the Icelandic way. We haven’t traveled more than a day’s journey from Reykjavik.”
But Moss needn’t worry. In “Names for the Sea,” the British novelist — heretofore largely unknown in this country — distinguishes herself as a writer with a sharp eye for her surroundings, a winning sense of self-awareness and, despite her claims to the contrary, an infectious appetite for new experiences.
Sure, she tends to keep her distance from Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland’s marvelously named volcano. Yet the sheer boldness of her move — Moss and her husband not only had to find jobs for themselves, but schools for their two small children, and they had to do so as the country was in a historic economic downturn — merits admiration. She’s a lot braver than she thinks.
Moss was a child when she first visited Iceland in the 1980s, and she returned during her student days in the mid-’90s. “I cannot remember the beginning of my longing for northerly islands,” she says.
So in 2009, when she and her husband decided the family needed a change of scenery, they left their Kent, England, home for a house in Reykjavik. That summer, she started work at Iceland’s National University, teaching students who, like many of their countrymen, speak both English and Icelandic.
Her account of the months that followed finds Moss adapting to the unusual day-night rhythms produced by the country’s spot on the map (“It’s nearly 9 a.m.,” she writes in November, “and sunrise is still a couple of hours away”); learning not to fret when a restless volcano announces itself (“The balcony is carpeted with brown dust. … Even the mixing bowls in the cupboards are gritty to touch”); and hearing memorable tales from eccentric locals (an innkeeper tells Moss that the elves who populate her property once sabotaged a customer’s car to prevent him from sneaking off without settling his bill).
Meanwhile, the country’s deep financial slump — the kreppa, in Icelandic — is less apparent, Moss explains. Public transportation isn’t popular, and there’s not much of a market for used goods. She says that Iceland “still feels like a place of excess to me, like a country where everyone has more stuff than they know what to do with.” But then, in an appealing bit of self-mockery, she allows that hers are “rich words from one who has left her own country to escape Great-grandma’s embroidered linen tablecloths.”
Her wit, like her sensitivity to social matters, is complemented by her astoundingly alert writing about the natural world. Visiting a town outside the capital, she finds that “there are trees in the crevices, massed pines, and plumes of steam rising from among them and from the black scree paused on the hillside above, and from the bare red ground above, waving in watercolour lines and pastel scribbles into the sky.”
As her year drew to a close, Moss might’ve felt that she didn’t complete everything on her to-do list. But judging by “Names for the Sea,” she clearly didn’t miss much.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York.