The woman at 1,000 degrees Hallgrímur Helgason, Oneworld, 2018 (translation), 978 1 78607 170 5, 451pp
I do not know what it is about northern Europe that makes it produce such marvellous fiction writers. In September last year I reviewed for these pages the Norwegian Lars Mytting’s ”The Sixteen Trees of the Somme.” I would have reviewed ”Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow” by the Dane Peter Høeg had I not read it so long ago. And, of course, there is the Swede Stieg Larsson’s brilliantly written trilogy The Millennium Series: ”The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” ”The Girl Who Played with Fire” and ”The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest.”. Last year I read, but did not review, ”A man called Ove” by another Swede (Frederick Backman). And here is another novel by a northern European; Iceland’s Hallgrímur Helgason. The book was originally published in Iceland in 2011 and has just been translated into English by an Irishman called Brian Fitzgibbon who lives in Reykjavík. I found this book in Moruya Books and Janice said to me as I placed it on the counter “I have heard that is a good book.” I do not know who she heard this from but I should like to find her and shake her by the hand. This is a well-written, seemingly well researched and fascinating book. The narrator is eighty-year-old Herra Björnsson who has ended up, after a somewhat interesting life, living in a converted garage suffering from emphysema and, basically, waiting to die. But first she needs to tell the story of how she got to the garage where she survives with the help of a probably long-suffering carer Lóa. The book opens with the sentences “I live here alone in a garage, together with a laptop and an old hand grenade. It’s pretty cosy.” With those two sentences under my belt I was captivated by what I can only describe as a “bloody good read.” I polished the book off in four days. It’s difficult to tell with a translation how much of the presentation is the author’s and how much the translator’s. But Hallgrímur Helgason is described in the end-notes as “a translator” so perhaps he kept a close eye on Brian FitzGibbon. Helgason says at the front of the book that it is “partly based on events that actually occurred and on people who lived and died” but that it is a work of fiction. Herra, the hero, is the granddaughter of the first president of Iceland. That relationship is the vehicle by which Helgason enables Herra to end up in Denmark when that 1 country is occupied by the Germans in 1940, when she is eleven years old. There are several threads to the story but the central theme is the story of Herra’s survival during the war years particularly after she becomes separated from her parents. Her father has joined the SS and her mother is on a train that Herra waits for but never arrives. She ends up in Berlin as the war ends trying, but not quite succeeding, to stay out of the Russians’ way. The novel moves back and forth between the decades of Herra’s life but the greatest emphasis is on the war years. Herra is almost certainly not a reliable narrator but that is perhaps the point. We lurch from the war years of the 1940s to her abusive relationship in the 1970s with the fisherman Baering. We bounce back and forth from decade to decade. I often find switches in chronology to get in the way of a story but in this book I did not find it so.It was clear that Herra had something to say and that she was going to say it in the her own way. She is a self-centred narrator but probably has every right to be self-centred. She has had a tough and dreadful life but she seems to view every event through a curtain of humour. In the end she succeeds in arriving at her own cremation: hence the 1000 degrees in the title. This book should be on your reading list: I am sure Janice has a copy or two.