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Names for

the Sea

Names for

the Sea

Strangers in Iceland




Copyright © Sarah Moss 2012

First published in Great Britain by Granta Books 2012

This edition published 2013

The moral right of Sarah Moss to be identified as the author of the work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Map copyright © Leslie Robinson and Vera Brice

All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission. No paragraph of this publication may be reproduced, copied or transmitted save with written permission or in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Act 1988. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available

ISBN 978-1-61902-217-1

Cover design by Emma Cofod

Typeset by M Rules


1919 Fifth Street

Berkeley, CA 94710


Distributed by Publishers Group West

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For all our friends in Iceland




1   Iceland First Seen

2   Leave of Absence

3   Vestmannaeyjar

4   Back to School

5   Pétur’s Saga

6   Winter

7   The Icesave Thing

8   Spring

9   Eyjafjallajökull

10   Vilborg

11   The Hidden People

12   A Small Farm Under a Crag

13   In Search of the Kreppa

14   Knitting and Shame

15   Last Weekend

16   Beautiful is the Hillside



The steam rising from the pool glows with reflected light. To passengers on the plane coming in overhead, the typography of the city’s night, the snaking headlights and pin-prick street lights, must look like a jeweller’s setting for the eleven turquoise pools. Garðabær, Kópavogur out on the headland, Álftanes with a slide, Seltjarnarnes filled with salt water, Laugardalur so big you can’t see across it for steam on a cold day. At home I navigate by food shops and booksellers. There are perhaps half a dozen independent food shops left in Reykjavík, and only chain bookshops, but every pool is distinctive. I’m at the deep end in Garðabær now, and the water’s colder. There is a faint smell of sulphur. I’m swimming slowly, more concerned to keep as much of my body as possible under water and out of the cold air than to reach the end of the lane any time soon. The branches of the pine trees around the pool are pressed against their trunks by the wind, black against a sky brown with light-pollution reflecting off snow. There’s no-one else swimming at the moment, only groups of adults congregated like hippopotamuses or perhaps Roman senators in the shallow pool, chatting and drifting in the warmer water. I keep going; I’d feel like Banquo’s ghost there, a lone foreigner, wearing glasses and the wrong kind of swimming costume, barely able to follow a conversation. I pause instead at the deep end, bring my feet down through the warm layers of water to the cold at the bottom, turn and stretch out my arms. And there, with my face below ground level, I see the light in the north, where the sky is veiled by the arc lights on the basketball court behind me and by the headlights of the SUVs I can hear ploughing through slush on the freeway over the wall. The northern sky, dark over the sea, is mottled with green that spreads like spilt paint, disappears and spreads again. I turn my head, wisps of wet hair chill as seaweed on my neck, to see a paler light flickering out like a flapped sheet in the north-west. The green and the white reach towards each other and then lunge away like opposing magnets forced together. I tread water, and watch.

Aurora borealis. Reykjavík, November 2009.


Iceland First Seen

I cannot remember the beginning of my longing for northerly islands. It may be hereditary; the childhood holidays that weren’t spent driving across Eastern Europe took place in Orkney and the Hebrides. My grandfather, growing up in Leeds in the 1920s, found his way onto an Iceland-bound fishing trawler at the age of sixteen, not because he had any interest in fishing but because he’d always wanted to go North. My grandmother went camping with her friends on Mull in the 1930s, and returned there in the 1950s with my mother and in the 1980s with me. It’s not the real, white Arctic, the scene of centuries of bearded latitude competitions, that sets me dreaming, but the grey archipelago of Atlantic stepping-stones. Scilly, Aran, Harris, Lewis, Orkney, Fair Isle, Shetland, Faroe. Iceland, southern Greenland, the Canadian Maritimes; a sea-road linking ancient settlements, travelled for centuries. The Arctic is just over the horizon, the six months’ darkness always at the back of the mind, the summer-long day impossible to believe in winter and impossible to doubt when it comes. Here, just below the Earth’s summit, there are towns and villages, a tangle of human lives, in the shadow of Arctic eschatology. I keep going back to the North Atlantic, working my way north and west as the Celts and Vikings did, as if I’m heading for the Vikings’ westernmost point at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. When we finish our A-levels, a friend and I rent a cottage on Rousay in Orkney, and spend two weeks walking the rocky shore and the moorland, climbing down the ladders into Neolithic tombs, and trying not to think about our pending – pendant – adult lives. As students, another friend and I embark on an ill-advised cycling trip around Shetland, where we have to pedal downhill into the wind but see a wilder, stranger landscape than the roundedness of Orkney. I make it to the Faroes, where some of the islands are no more than cliffs rising from the sea, and the Norse who once ruled Orkney and Shetland too are still, more or less, there. At university, I take an Old Norse class, expecting to be fascinated by the sagas, and plan to spend the summer of my first year in Iceland. I win an award given to undergraduates for ‘the advancement of knowledge relating to the

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