Woman at 1,000 Degrees: A Novel by Hallgrímur Helgason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Despite my personal dislike of quirky old person narratives, I really found myself enjoying this novel. Herra Bjornsson lives in a garage where she is dying from emphysema, and is thinking back on her life. And what a life! She came of age in Iceland during World War II. I had never stopped to think about Iceland during World War II, and the book gave me the occasion to do so. Technically Iceland was ruled by Denmark at the time, but Denmark was invaded by Germany while the island of Iceland was occupied by the British. And in 1944, Iceland declared its independence in the midst of the worldwide chaos.
So what do you do if you are a young Icelandic girl whose father fights for the Nazis? Herra moves with her mother to the Danish island of Amrum where hundreds of people are taking shelter from the war, until they are forced to relocate. At that point she is sent to live with a family who is supposed to only take her in for a few months. But when her mother doesn't make the rendezvous point and Herra's father goes back to the front, she is forced as a young teen to attempt to survive on her own, taking her through areas of Denmark, Poland, and Germany. When she returns to Iceland, her father is ostracized and she can't forgive her mother, while her grandparents (the president of Iceland) have war-forgetting cocktail parties for the new wealthy class that profited from the war.
Between the chapters of this history are chapters from the "present day," which in this novel is 2009. Herra is bedridden but she has internet access and spends much of her time trolling people on the internet, including her daughter-in-law. One of her neighbors teaches her how to be a low-key hacker and this leads to other shenanigans.
The reference to 1,000 degrees is the temperature at which a body is burned for cremation, and one memorable scene has Herra making her own appointment at the crematorium.
I think without the balancing of the feisty old person Herra, the story may have seemed overly melodramatic. It did add a lot to the story to know where she ended up. And it isn't glamorous!
There is even more here - commentary on the Icelandic people, the discomfort of representing the great white ideal because of Hitler (her father was a professor of myth/history ... the line gets a bit blurred by the Nazis of course), the reactions of normal people to war and other atrocities, survival, and even sexual awakening (this last one makes me consider whether or not this is mild enough for a book club recommendation.)
There is enough humor to balance the stark realities, and Herra is probably the most kickass invalid you will ever encounter. I enjoyed it far more than I expected, and will seek out additional books by the author, someone who somehow escaped me in my year of reading Iceland. Shame!
Thanks to the publisher for providing early access to this title via NetGalley. The book comes out January 9, 2018.
View all my reviews