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Woman at 1000 Degrees: A Novel by Hallgrímur Helgason is a newer Icelandic historical fiction novel about WWII, survival, love, and death. A tragic and crude book set in Iceland, learn about Herra’s struggles as a displaced child of war.
Content/Trigger Warnings: Rape, brutality, incest, war, child death, abandonment, and murder
Woman at 1000 Degrees: A Novel by Hallgrímur Helgason and translated by Brian FitzGibbon is a heartbreaking and intense historical fiction novel set during WWII in Iceland. Through Herra, Helgason paints a grim picture of war and the all-encompassing power of Hitler’s grasp on a peaceful country.
Although Woman at 1000 Degrees received endless praise, the novel is equally entertaining and funny but also shrewd and a tad dragging. Slightly disappointed, I expected more from Helgason. However, I would not skip reading this title.
I also debate if the depressing and harsh tales of rape and a violent marriage affected my judgment of the title. Herra is disgustingly honest and brutal just like the men who destroyed her. Unlikable narrators are tough but also intriguing. In many ways, Woman at 1000 Degrees is brilliant and evokes all the emotions.
Suffice it to say, I have a love-dislike relationship with Woman at 1000 Degrees.
Woman At 1000 Degrees: A Novel Book Review
The year is 2009, and Herra is booking her cremation appointment. Not yet dead, as her cancer spreads and emphysema worsens, Herra knows that she will not last until Christmas. With a WWII grenade still in her clutches, she plans on embracing her fiery end while retching out a few last chuckles.
A modern woman, Herra lives out her less than golden years in a garage where she trolls helpless suckers on the internet. Bitter and vile, Herra is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of gal. She spends the novel flashing back to her childhood–if one can even call it that–and possibly defends her terrible role as a mother in the process.
How did Herra get here?
With an Icelandic father oddly joining Hitler’s army, Herra and her mother find themselves moving around Europe first with privilege and then with nothing. Hitler is a drug to Herra’s father; one he cannot give up even after the addiction becomes fatal.
With the endless relocation, Herra faces discrimination and bullying. Her education transforms into one taught by prostitutes and war. She learns about survival, deceit, and poor choices. Ultimately thrown on a ship and abandoned on more than one occasion, young Herra must fend for herself largely without any adult supervision.
From multiple rapes to starving and watching the world succumb to war, Herra manages to survive. She even starts her own family. Cyclical in nature, though, Herra becomes her parents, abandoning her children at a whim. No wonder they take her inheritance pre-death and never visit.
Looking for Icelandic nonfiction? Check out this book review of Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss.
Who Will Enjoy Woman at 1000 Degrees?
Herra’s character is loosely based on Brynhildur Georgía Björnsson, granddaughter of Iceland’s first Prime Minister. Like Herra, Björnsson’s father fought for Hitler, a rare occurrence for Icelanders. Left alone, she too wandered aimlessly around Germany and lived in a garage. Helgason’s story is less than flattering–I will certainly pass on him writing about me.
The first half of this book sucked in my interest. Although you want to despise Herra, you can’t help but admire her spunk and spark of life. As you learn about the tragedies suffered, you gain insight into her unpolished character. I felt empathy, repulsion, and understanding. Yet, halfway through, I had enough.
I can’t quite pinpoint my loss of interest. Pacing? Brutality that is important to acknowledge but hard on the heart? Dislike for Herra as a mother? Did I like Herra, just a little? Or, could I at least appreciate her? Respect her? I laughed. I cried.
With that criticism, though, I would still highly recommend Woman at 1000 Degrees. As newer Icelandic fiction, the story offers a unique tale of an Icelandic family involved in the war–on Hitler’s side. Well-written and emotionally stirring, you honestly cannot skip this title.
Woman at 1000 Degrees Book Information:
Woman at 1,000 Degrees: A Novel by Hallgrímur Helgason and translated by Brian FitzGibbon [Algonquin Books 2018]
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hallgrímur Helgason is an Icelandic writer and artist. Read more about Hallgrímur Helgason.