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Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss, Granta, Dh85.
Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss, Granta, Dh85.
Meltdown Iceland by Roger Boyes, Bloomsbury, Dh51.
Meltdown Iceland by Roger Boyes, Bloomsbury, Dh51.
The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness, Vintage, Dh51.
The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness, Vintage, Dh51.

Required Reading: Iceland

Icelanders need an app to ensure prospective dates aren¿t also relatives. So what is life like in one of the smallest, and strangest, countries on Earth?

This week, the world gained a glimpse, via smartphone, of life in Iceland. Reports arrived of a new Icelandic mobile app intended to help prospective couples discover whether they are related. You may scoff but that's a real risk when you're dating among Iceland's tiny population of 320,000. Users of the "Incest Prevention" app simply bump smartphones to discover their relatedness: to provide its answer the app accesses an online genealogical database about the inhabitants of Iceland called Íslendingabók.

So what is it like to live in one of the smallest countries, and most ancient cultures, on Earth? And is it really true that Icelanders - even the grown-ups - believe in elves?

• For an outsider's view, turn to Names for the Sea by the novelist Sarah Moss, a university lecturer who moved with her two young children to Iceland in 2009. Moss discovers a country still in thrall to its rich Norse heritage. The country was first populated in the ninth-century, when Vikings arrived and established the Althing, the oldest parliament in the world. Today, the descendants of those Vikings still go without familial last names and still call one another things like Anar, son of Aalstein (that's one of the app developers, by the way).

• For centuries, Iceland - which is dependent largely on fishing and little else - was one of the poorest countries in Europe. But read Meltdown Iceland by Roger Boyes to learn how, in the first decade of the 21st century, an explosion in its banking sector sent foreign money pouring into Reykjavik and allowed Icelanders a world-beating standard of living. But it all came crashing down in 2009, and Icelanders are still living with the consequences.

• But perhaps the richest insight into Iceland comes via its rich literary heritage, which stretches back to the 10th-century epic verse Sagas of the Icelanders. For some classic Icelandic angst and insularity, go to The Fish Can Sing, the strange, haunting story of a fisherman living outside Reykjavik with his elderly grandparents. The author, Halldór Laxness, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955.

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