Book review: Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland

It is rare to find books on Iceland in stores here in America, so imagine my surprise when I was perusing the shelves in my local Barnes and Nobles and found one. Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland chronicles her year as a visiting professor at the University of Iceland in 2009, and it is unlike any other book pertaining to Iceland. Mrs. Moss has a young family (two boys), so part of this book talks about her struggles to balance that family life with her job. This changed the dynamic of the book, as it forced her to consider what was best for her and her family.

Something that was interesting about the book was how it addressed the social and cultural aspects of Iceland. I’ll admit that I had some preconceived notions about Iceland, having been there as well. She interviewed some friends and students about their views on poverty and the economy, and it was surprising: her research suggested that Icelanders do not want to admit that there is a gap in wealth. Other topics that were touched upon dealt with were the use of drugs, as well as the use of police (in the context of student demonstrations), and immigration/foreigners. However, Moss was able to present a balanced picture of the culture in Iceland, so these issues did not overwhelm the reader. I’m glad for that, though, as it really enabled me to gain more of an insight into Icelandic culture. Besides these issues, Moss naturally talked about her time as a professor at the university. What was striking was how Icelanders, at least in her experience, really did not think critically enough about issues in class (she taught English Literature). I didn’t think that that would be the case, but it did make me reflect on my education. Is there that much of a culture gap in education styles? Moss’s experience would seem to indicate so. At times it was eye opening, but it was invaluable to become more culturally aware.

Moving away from these issues, Moss explored the quirkier side of Icelandic culture. Icelanders have famously been chronicled as firm believers in elves, and this was a pressing issue that she attempted to understand. This led her to interview a woman who serves as a medium, of sorts, between humans and the mischievous elves. Only in Iceland, eh? Another anecdote was when she talked to a couple running a hotel. While there is no conclusive evidence that elves exist, the stories provided by them made you believe that magic is alive and well. Case in point: some visitors to this hotel attempted to skirt paying their bill, and they found that their car tires somehow went missing. What’s the moral of the story? Believe in the elves, and they will protect you!

Of course, Eyjafjallajökull, the infamously hard to pronounce volcano, made an appearance. Mrs. Moss was trying to fly out to Singapore and other parts of the world for job interviews, but was prevented by the volcano’s eruption. Summarily, she devoted a chapter on the dramatic change in daily life. I’ll spare the details, but I’ll just say that I didn’t envy them having to life under those circumstances!

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland was a fascinating book that highlighted other parts of Icelandic life. I have read other books ( on the country, but this was unique in that it was about an English family spending a year as temporary Icelanders. Through Mrs. Moss’s experiences, one can understand what it is like living in the North Atlantic. For part travel commentary and part cultural insight, this book is a must read on one of the world’s most beautiful countries!


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