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