Book Review – Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss

Book Review – Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss

One big factor that holds people back from making a long term travel commitment is financial considerations: not only ‘have I got enough money?’, but ‘what will this mean for my long term career?’ Another potential issue is if you have children, as you can’t up sticks so easily if you have little ones dependent on you.

Sarah Moss not only moved to Iceland, one of the most expensive countries in the world, with her husband and two young sons, but she did so at the height of the global recession in 2009. With only a year-long contract as a lecturer at Iceland’s National University awaiting her, there’s no doubt that Moss and her family were taking a bit of a risk, and she chronicles their experiences – good and bad – in this travelogue.

In essence, there are two main narrative threads to Names for the Sea. The first is that of Moss and her family’s domestic struggles as they adjust to a new home, a new language and a new way of life; and the second sees Moss (mostly without her family) travel both Reykjavik and the land around, seeking answers from its citizens about Iceland’s past, present and future.

The straightforwardly humorous opening chapter – where she describes how her love affair with Iceland came about when, aged 19, she travelled around the country with a pal – is where the conventional ‘backpacker tales’ stuff is dealt with. From then on – save for a return holiday a year later, detailed in the last chapter –  it’s all about the daily issues of travelling around a place with limited public transport without owning a car, finding a good school for your kids, and getting your head around an altogether different way of working in your day job.


All well and good, but the domestic strand of the narrative thread is probably going to be too twee and preoccupied with middle-class-angst – moaning about ‘issues’ such as the limited number of vegetables compared to what she gets at home – for most travel enthusiasts’ tastes. She is there to do a job and support her family, so it’s understandable that this is front and centre of the narrative. But actual engagement with Icelandic culture seems superficial to non-existent. Her account of the infamous eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano is particularly detached and tokenistic. This is very strange, considering it’s a notable phenomenon that coincided with the year she happened to be there!

The parts where Moss does a bit of amateur anthropology are marginally more successful. Here she manages to be both languidly funny – as seen when Moss interviews a lady who purports to interact with Elves – and a serious reporter, such as when interviewing a man who was on the front line of protests against the recently ousted government (the ‘Pots and Pans Revolution’). Educated you will be, thanks to her nuanced observational and writing skills. But, frustratingly, it doesn’t go far enough. It’s too reliant on the anecdotes of a select few people who are, basically, friends of friends, and subsequently not as interesting and authoritative as it could be.

Whilst it’s well-written, Names for the Sea essentially comes across as a travel book for people whose idea of venturing outside their comfort zone is to make do without several of the taken-for-granted comforts of home. You certainly won’t get a profound insight in to the national psyche, or even anything about Iceland’s wonderful sights and attractions. As such, Names for the Sea is an intermittently amusing, sometimes interesting, but ultimately underwhelming read.

Reykjavik image courtesy of Bryan Pocius




  • Hallie

    September 7, 2016 at 2:20 am Reply

    Too bad about the book. Sounds like I’d read it and be disappointed by her lack of confidence to see the unknown and appreciation for being able to discover a new place. Maybe when she’s a bit older and more traveled, she’ll get it?
    Hallie recently posted…Comment on The OTB Lounge in Walkerhill Has Hit Its Stride by A Day At The Horse Races in SeoulMy Profile

    • Joe

      September 7, 2016 at 5:46 am Reply

      Maybe, but I get the sense that her adventuring days are over. She comes across as an academic who has just happened to have written a travel writing book!

  • Vyjay

    September 7, 2016 at 7:56 am Reply

    I have not read the book, but based on the review, I feel it is more focused on personal experiences and adjusting to a new place. The romance and allure of travel seems to be missing somewhere.

    • Joe

      September 7, 2016 at 5:04 pm Reply

      Yeah, she seemed to be seeing it as an ordeal to get through more than anything! Which might do it for some, but not for those of us who are travel-inclined.

  • The Toronto Seoulcialite

    September 7, 2016 at 8:30 am Reply

    Too bad to hear it was an underwhelming read! I couldn’t quite figure out your stance until the end of your review. Definitely interesting hearing about different perspectives as far as “roughing it” goes!

    • Joe

      September 7, 2016 at 5:05 pm Reply

      Well, it’s not a totally bad book you see, and does have redeeming features, hence me not totally trashing it. It just doesn’t do it for me as a travel writing book!

  • Smidge

    September 7, 2016 at 6:17 pm Reply

    I do wonder sometimes how books like this get published. I can see it working well with a good day to day expat travel blog, but otherwise it is so static. Nice write up!

    • Joe

      September 8, 2016 at 5:52 am Reply

      Thanks 🙂 Stuff that shouldn’t get published does get published more often than we would like…

  • Kerri

    September 9, 2016 at 1:14 am Reply

    Such a shame as I think a country like Iceland would have so many wonderful differences, cultural uniqueness and experiences that the book should be vibrant, fun and a great learning opportunity. Sounds more like lost opportunity from your review.
    Kerri recently posted…Why your next campervan hire in Europe should be with France Motorhome HireMy Profile

    • Joe

      September 10, 2016 at 8:05 am Reply

      Indeed it was, she spends too much time dwelling on the negatives rather than appreciating the positives for me!

  • WhereMonicaGoes

    September 10, 2016 at 1:59 am Reply

    Oh, thanks for a detailed book review. It seems like an interesting book from the beginning, but as you said, it may be disappointing to travel enthusiasts. I am looking for selected travel books to inspire wanderlust and perhaps you can recommend some to me? For sure, these would be perfect read while waiting for my next flight. 🙂

    • Joe

      September 10, 2016 at 8:09 am Reply

      Hi Monica, would be happy to! This isn’t one of them, but I definitely do recommend the other travel book I’ve reviewed so far (or anything by that author, for that matter). It depends what country/continent you’re interested in, and what narrative tone you’re looking for – e.g. Funny? Serious? Blood River by Tim Butcher is a great example of the latter and Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson a good example of the latter. Feel free to contact me for more suggestions!

  • Renne Simpson

    September 13, 2016 at 9:02 am Reply

    Whomp whomp. Too bad it was underwhelming. It sounded interesting at first. It would be nice to hear more about the country in the book.
    Renne Simpson recently posted…21 Places to Find Colorful Street Art, Designs, and DoorsMy Profile

    • Joe

      September 13, 2016 at 4:19 pm Reply

      Indeed! I’ll have to hunt down a book on Iceland that does reveal more about this beautiful country…

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