Names for the Sea

NamesForTheSea2012Just after Cold Earth came out, in the summer of 2009, I moved to Iceland for a year with my husband and two sons. People always ask why we went and the truth is that I still don’t really know: because it was there, because we could, because we thought it would be interesting (it was), because I’d fallen in love with the place when I was nineteen, because we didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives in Kent.

We lived in a newly-built flat in a largely empty development in Gardabaer, a wealthy suburb of Reykjavik which we chose to be close to the International School and the sea. I had a lectureship at the University of Iceland, where I taught Romantic poetry and creative writing. I found the experience of being a foreigner very hard. I didn’t know how to catch a bus or pay a bill, where to buy light-bulbs or calpol. The early days of living abroad are infantilizing, and made harder by a certain kind of Britishness that would rather kill itself (without making a fuss) than make a stupid mistake in public. I talked, one day, to some of my students about this paralyzing sense of idiocy and they, who had almost all lived abroad themselves at some point, told me that the Icelandic word for stupid is ‘heimsku’, one who stays at home. You stop being stupid by embracing your stupidity.

So that’s what Names for the Sea is about, living in a new place and asking questions. It’s partly about the landscape and seasons; the way we noticed the migratory birds whose passages tell you the seasons almost as reliably as the changing light, winter walks haunted by the aurora borealis, the hours of sunset and sunrise that make summer nights. It’s also about living with the volcano, and the financial crisis, but mostly it’s about the conversations I had with Icelanders when I started to seek answers to my foolish foreign questions. How do you live with a landscape that might come and get you in the night, with boiling geysirs and earthquakes as well as Arctic blizzards and active volcanoes? How do you reconcile the obsession with national independence and separatism with openness? How can you define national identity by physical and emotional toughness while explaining that it’s ‘unIcelandic’ to walk anywhere? Last but not least, who really believes in the Hidden People?

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland was published by Granta at the beginning of July 2012.  

Reviews of Names for the Sea include

Kathleen Jamie, The Guardian

Carl Wilkinson, Financial Times

Jenny Parrott, The Big Issue

Helen Rumbelow, The Times

Emily Read, The Spectator

Kevin Canfield, StarTribune

Condé Nast Traveller

There is also an interview with Sarah on BBC World Service, Outlook

Jane Smiley, The Washington Post  : “What draws the reader along, page after page, is Moss’s 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) — along with her stylistic precision in depicting the results of her quest.”