The Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrímur Helgason
A historical novel unlike many others, The Women at 1,000 Degrees is an original (if somewhat uncomfortable) read
An old woman lies in bed in an Icelandic garage waiting for death. Her name is Herra Björnsson, and in between speculating about her carer's sex life, stalking her family on Facebook, and agonising over the thrice-daily trip to the toilet, she remembers her life.
This is a historical novel unlike many, as we journey with Herra from conception to cremation, from Iceland to Germany, South America and back again. Based upon the true story of Brynhilder Georgía Björnsson, the granddaughter of Iceland's first president and the daughter of a Nazi, whose life was blighted by her experiences during the Second World War, Herra is a compelling narrator. Her humour and wry observations alleviate the bleakness that pervades the novel ('Smoking kills, the packet assures me, but it’s taking ages’). We cannot help but pity ‘a lonely little Icelandic girl who had lost her father and mother in a round of poker with the ruthless rulers of the world,’ whose rare moments of happiness seem too quickly dashed.
The novel boasts an engaging plot, deft characterisation, and an appealing dexterity with language. Yet after 446 pages of atrocity heaped upon sorrow, it is something of a relief to set it aside. An original, but not a comfortable, read.