Friday, 2 February 2018

The Woman At 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason

The Woman At 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason
First published in Icelandic as Konan vid 1000° by JPV utgafa in 2011. English language translation by Brian FitzGibbon published by OneWorld in the UK on the 4th January 2018.

Featured in 5Books1Theme: Older WomenWorldReads: Iceland, and Cover Characteristics: Aeroplanes. My Book Of The Month for February 2018

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository : from £8.94 (PB)
Wordery : from £8.89 (PB)
Waterstones : from £9.99 (PB)
Amazon : from $1.50 / £2.20 (used HB)
Prices and availability may have changed since this post was written

‘I live here alone in a garage, together with a laptop and an old hand grenade. It’s pretty cosy.’

And...she’s off. Eighty-year-old Herra Björnsson lies alone in her garage waiting to die. One of the most original narrators in literary history, she takes readers with her on a dazzling ride of a novel as she reflects – in a voice by turns darkly funny, bawdy, poignant, and always, always smart – on the mishaps, tragedies and turns of luck that shaped her life.

Born into a prominent political family, Herra’s idyllic childhood in the islands of western Iceland was brought to an abrupt end when her father foolishly cast his lot with a Hitler on the rise. Separated from her mother, and with her father away at war, she finds herself abandoned and alone in war-torn Germany, relying on her wits and occasional good fortune to survive. Now, with death approaching, forced to hack into her sons’ emails to have any contact with them at all, Herra decides to take control of her destiny and sets a date for her own cremation – at a temperature of 1,000 degrees.

In this international bestseller, Hallgrímur Helgason invites readers on a journey that is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, and which ultimately tells the deeply moving story of a woman swept up by the forces of history.

I loved this novel! Herra Maria Bjornsson is one of the most refreshingly irreverent heroines I have read in a long time and her sense of humour frequently chimed perfectly with my own. The survivor of a long and frequently tragic life, Herra is now confined within a converted garage, but with a laptop and internet connection that still allows her to make mischief as far afield as Australia. She also has her vivid memories - of wartime Europe, Peron's Argentina and her beloved Iceland.

I'm not sure how much of what Herra remembers is true, how much is what she believes to be true, and how much is her having fun with her captive audience. Certainly I got to see aspects of the Second World War from a very different viewpoint to that I usually read in British novels. The destruction of cities and the continuous walking of streams of refugees is heart rending and a stark reminder of how Europe almost completely destroyed itself only a few generations ago. Herra's Icelandic perspective showed people in a unique light and her mickey taking of national characteristics injects a welcome lightening into scenes that could otherwise be unbearably dark.

The Woman At 1000 Degrees jumps around time periods scattering scenes from Herra's life almost randomly as certain of her memories lead into others. I liked piecing together how the innocent child caught by the war at twelve years old became the fervently independent woman and how her own desperate self-preservation led to her making the choices she did. In many ways, Herra's life is defined by the times through which she lived. In other ways, she was helpless in the face of paths chosen by those around her. I was reminded of the curse, 'may you live in interesting times'. Herra certainly managed to avoid a humdrum life, but at an overwhelmingly high price.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Hallgrimur Helgason / Contemporary fiction / Books from Iceland


  1. The title of this book is what caught my attention intially and now reading the review it is not what I expected it to be about. I think I would like that you can't necessarily tell what is true and not true. I like that you have to piece things together to get it. I think that really does an accurate depiction of the disillusionment war can give you when you're young.

    1. I hope that lots of people choose to read this book. It's layered and thoughtful, but also great fun :-)