Sarah Moss had a childhood dream of moving to Iceland, sustained by a wild summer there when she was nineteen. In 2009, she saw an advertisement for a job at the University of Iceland and applied on a whim, despite having two young children and a comfortable life in Kent. The resulting adventure was shaped by Iceland’s economic collapse, which halved the value of her salary, by the eruption of Eyjafjallaj√∂kull and by a collection of new friends, including a poet who saw the only bombs fall on Iceland in 1943, a woman who speaks to elves and a chef who guided Sarah’s family around the intricacies of Icelandic cuisine. Moss explored hillsides of boiling mud and volcanic craters and learned to drive like an Icelander on the unsurfaced roads that link remote farms and fishing villages in the far north. She watched the northern lights and the comings and goings of migratory birds, and as the weeks and months went by, she and her family learned new ways to live.
I’ve been a bit fascinated by Iceland, which has become more pronounced since reading Burial Rites nearly a year ago now. I saw this book being mentioned around the blogosphere, and grabbed it when it was on sale on Kindle. I’ve never moved overseas, though it looked like I would for a while, and that was daunting enough. I can’t imagine doing it with kids in tow, and to such an alien landscape such as Iceland.
I understand the anxiety that Sarah felt about the move, and the new beginning, as well as the unfamiliarity of it all, and I appreciate her sharing it with us- it made me feel a bit like I was having a conversation with a friend. I too become anxious in new places.
I feel a bit like her anxiety was to the book’s detriment, which is unfortunate. As a reader, and as someone who hasn’t been to Northern Europe, I wanted her to tell me how the whale meat tasted (there was quite a long lead up to her trying whale meat, which fell flat at the last second) and what it’s like to eat burnt sheep head. I wanted her to really describe Reykjavik’s main street and talk more about the wildlife. She wasn’t exactly willing to go out of her culinary comfort zone though, which really disappointed me, especially when she specifically talks about these foods.
I suppose I’ll eat anything though… I’ve never had much time for fussy eaters!
I also felt like her anxiety about situations and meeting people, while perfectly understandable, was almost a disabling quality. We’d get a build up to her doing something new, but it wouldn’t happen. She’d relate a second hand story from a friend instead of trying it herself. So much of the “action” of the story was the family going about their daily lives (as families tend to do!) but not going much further than the sea wall. By the three quarter mark, I was bored silly. Her disbelief in the fairies and elves made me feel a bit bad for the women she spoke to, as they were helping her with her book and she borderline makes fun of them (particularly the first lady). I understand the feeling of thinking someone odd, but she just seemed totally unwilling to suspend disbelief.
However, the final quarter kind of picked up. I enjoyed the section on Icelandic knitting,
and their trip around the island, but it was too little, too late to save the book. I would have liked her to try knitting in the Icelandic fashion, to see whether it is easier than British knitting or not. She kind of lined that section up and never kicked off, so to speak.
I’m going to give this a 3.5 star mark, because I did finish it, so
it can’t be too bad, and because Sarah is actually aware of her anxiety and her inability to relax about life. She admits it readily throughout the book, and in some ways it made her more relatable to me, but in other ways it made me feel like she was blocking my understanding of Icelandic life. I grabbed this as the first book I read after my thesis, and it did kind of help me ease into reading. I wish she’d included a reading list in the back of the book, so I could read more Icelandic literature!
I also think that Sarah Moss’ living in Reykjavik for a year helped a book a lot, as it felt more settled, and not like an extended Lonely Planet introduction. For someone with perhaps more patience and understanding of being a mother than I do, and perhaps with less of a specific idea of what they want to know, this book would be perfect. It’s not awful by any stretch of the imagination, and Moss has done a good job on most aspects of the book.
Does anyone know of any to recommend to me? (I have The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness already)