The Woman at 1,000 Degrees

Written by Brian Fitzgibbon (trans.) Hallgrímur Helgason
Review by Sarah Cuthbertson

Whilst telephone-canvassing during the 2006 Icelandic municipal elections, the author encountered an opinionated, irascible, mischievous old lady who had been living alone in a garage for 10 years, keeping in touch with the world via the Internet. Fascinated, Helgason wrote this novel based on her eventful life. His fictional heroine, Herra Björnsson, born in 1929, lives in a garage with a laptop, an oxygen cylinder and a hand grenade. Awaiting death aged 80, she recounts how her idyllic childhood in rural Iceland ended abruptly when her father went to study Old Norse at a German university just as the Nazis were rising to power. Falling under Hitler’s spell, he joined the SS, and after the Nazi defeat, Herra became one of the countless refugees crossing Europe in search of safety, enduring cold and hunger and witnessing horrors (there is a particularly harrowing scene involving concentration camp victims). She finds refuge in Argentina before returning to Europe via the USA, eventually ending up in a garage, estranged from her family and alone with her memories, including a flirtation with John Lennon in Hamburg in 1960. She warns the reader, however, that she is an unreliable narrator: ‘I sink into the depths of my quilt…with all my load, sails and oars. With all my lies.’ But which are the lies and who amongst us remembers everything perfectly?

Herra is a compelling character: funny, bitchy, annoying, often perceptive but ultimately poignant. The narrative is somewhat rambling and disjointed (probably deliberately). This novel will appeal most to readers of a literary bent.