Hallgrímur Helgason’s novel, Woman at 1,000 Degrees, begins in 2009. Octogenarian Herra Björnsson awaits her death while laying in a hospital-grade bed inside of a garage. Her possessions are few but her memories of World War II are plentiful. She is equipped with a carton of cigarettes, her laptop, and a grenade that she keeps nestled between her legs. But she spends the majority of her day ruminating on the events that shaped her tragic existence. From her deathbed she questions her choices and frequently regrets her decisions. She censures her younger self for not disclosing the identity of a former concentration camp official and victim-blames herself for trusting the man who rapes her. Herra’s life and Woman at 1,000 Degrees are underscored by violence, tragedy, and indignity.
Abandoned by her father, Herra lives with her mother and maternal grandmother on a rural Icelandic island. Her father eventually returns, only to take Herra and her mother to Europe where he enlists in the SS. Helgason devotes a large portion of the novel to Herra’s introspection. For example, she tries to balance her father’s morals against his allegiance to Nazi ideology. She comes to the adroit conclusion that “he mistook his weakness for strength and his uniform for proof that he was a man among men” (61). Prior to his deployment to the Eastern Front, her father arranges to leave Herra with her mother. She never arrives and Herra faces complete abandonment. She’s forced to provide for herself from the rubble of war-ravished Europe. After World War II she leaves for Argentina where she endures failed marriages, physical abuse, and more degradation. She then abandons her own children who, as adults, relinquish Herra to die alone in a garage.
Despite the longevity of tragedy, Herra is funny. But her humor might not appeal to all readers. Throughout the novel she’s snide and blunt while her jokes verge on black comedy. For example, her entire exchange with the listless receptionist at the crematorium is hilarious. Here, Herra learns that 1,000 degrees Celsius is the temperature of the incinerator and this thrills her. She even exclaims that the “perfect way to start the week [is] by having yourself cremated” (45). Nothing evokes gallows humor better than a character scheduling her own cremation. But this will cause discomfort in some readers. How can readers be surprised, though? For the majority of Herra’s life she’s experienced tragedy and violence. Of course her humor would stem from suffering.
The chapter, “Fire Organ”, named after a German euphemism for the vagina, is a comical account of female sexual pleasure. Herra learns how to masturbate from her German roommate who wants to achieve a mega-orgasm. Despite Herra’s frequent consensual sexual encounters, it was her roommate’s tutelage that helped her finally understand sex. Up until that moment, Herra “lain under men without thinking of my own needs” (66). Herra’s ability to take control of her own sexual desires reflects her agency. Masturbation presents the metaphorical attainment of subjectivity after her life was rewritten by War World II.
Herra is an unreliable narrator. Helgason makes this clear from the very beginning when Herra mentions that “it’s hard to distinguish one thing from another. It all flows into one muddle of time” (2). The manner in which her narrative develops is at times difficult to follow because the text moves so frequently between the past and present and each is packaged in short chapters. For example, her recollections of fending for herself are so captivating that it’s jarring to turn the page and find the character now in a different decade. This tactic diminishes Herra’s power and compartmentalizes the trauma. Furthermore, the texts drags in many parts. There were almost too many memories and minor events. As one example, Herra’s foray into the black market sales of lipstick and shoe polish weighed down the plot’s momentum. Herra is a smart and versatile character, but readers must pick out her strength from an at-times torpid narrative.
Helgason’s inspiration for Herra is based on Brynhildur Georgia Bjornsson, granddaughter of Iceland’s first president. Helgason essentially fictionalized Brynhildur’s memoir. Yet many of Brynhildur experiences, such as surviving World War II, struggling to understand devoted Nazism, and the transference of familial neglect, are concretely embodied by Herra. Translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon, the text doesn’t assume the readers know Iceland’s unique culture or are familiar with Brynhildur. Cultural references, such as society’s penchant for DYI, are fully explained. This allows readers to fully engage with Herra and understand her social-political context.
Woman at 1,000 Degrees sharply demonstrates trauma’s deep roots. War creates an unstable existence, and survivors such as Herra must learn to forge through the emotional and physical injuries. Herra is of the generation that was “razed to the ground” (369) by World War II, and this destruction is reflected in every aspect of her existence. Herra is ready to die but her story represents a life worth reading.