Hello my fellow book nerds and welcome to my first review of 2018! I thought we’d kick things off with a bang (pun intended!) with the long anticipated English language release of Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hillgrimur Helgason. I simply couldn’t resist the idea of a plucky old biddy with a laptop and a hand grenade, and I wasn’t disappointed! I laughed, I cried, and I was constantly surprised – this baby earned every bit of it’s 5* review and I can’t recommend it enough.
Title: Woman at 1,000 Degrees
Author: Hillgrimur Helgason
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Original Publication Date: September 1, 2011
Expected Publication Date: January 9, 2018
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Memoire
Themes: WWII, Survival, Family, Relationships, Aging
My Rating: 5/ 5
“I live here alone in a garage, together with a laptop computer and a hand grenade. It’s pretty cozy.”
And . . . she’s off. Eighty-year-old Herra Bjornsson, one of the most original narrators in literary history, takes readers along with her on a dazzling ride of a novel that spans the events and locales of the twentieth century. As she lies alone in that garage in the heart of Reykjavik, waiting to die, Herra reflects–in a voice by turns darkly funny, bawdy, poignant, and always, always smart–on the mishaps, tragedies, and turns of luck that took her from Iceland to Nazi Germany, from the United States to Argentina and back to a post-crash, high-tech, modern Iceland.
Born to a prominent political family, Herra’s childhood begins in the idyllic islands of western Iceland. But when her father makes the foolish decision to cast his lot with a Hitler on the rise, she soon finds herself abandoned and alone in war-torn Europe, relying on only her wits and occasional good fortune to survive.
For Herra is, ultimately, a fierce survivor, a modern woman ahead of her time who is utterly without self-pity despite the horrors she has endured. With death approaching, she remembers the husbands and children she has loved and lost, and tries, for the first time, to control her own fate by defying her family’s wishes and setting a date for her cremation–at a toasty temperature of 1,000 degrees. Each chapter of Herra’s story is a piece of a haunting puzzle that comes together beautifully in the book’s final pages.
Originally published in Icelandic and based on a real person whom author Hallgrímur Helgason encountered by chance, Woman at 1,000 Degrees was a bestseller in Germany, France, and Denmark, and has been compared to “John Irving on speed.” But it is deeply moving as well, the story of a woman swept up by the forces of history. With echoes of All the Light We Cannot Seeand The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, as well as European tours de force such as The Tin Drum, Woman at 1,000 Degrees is, ultimately, original, introducing a fresh new voice to American audiences.
This book was, without question, the best possible way to kick off this year’s reviews. It took me a few days to sit down and write this review because it is a book that defies genre and classification yet, it is meticulously crafted, undeniably outrageous, and so damn thought provoking that it will leave you desperately wanting more. The only way I can describe this book is as a deathbed confessional for one spunky old lady who has a) lived one hell of a life, and b) certainly won’t be leaving this world unless it is on her own terms. But more than anything it is a tale of perseverance and survival in the most trying of conditions. It explores the very fabric of humanity, the limits of one’s spirit, and ultimately, what makes a person.
I loved Herra’s character – she is honest, painfully blunt, defiant, and fiercely independent. I enjoyed the conversational tone of the narration, the train of thought approach, and the flashback style memories. The result was that while we get a good idea of who and what Herra is at the end of her life, we are also presented glimpses into the moments that shaped her. I won’t go into too much detail about these events other than saying that growing up as a teenage girl during WWII without parents or family to protect you is a pretty raw deal – and that I’m happy she at least had her father’s hand grenade. In the end I can only hope that I will go the same way as dear old Herra – on my own terms, in my own time, and with a grenade that have been carried through wars and across continents in my hands. Seriously though, I would have loved to have seen how the funeral homes and bomb squad would sort that predicament out! … Also Bod’s face when he realized that his muscle obsessed pea-brain had been duped by a cancer ridden pensioner in a garage…
In the end I was left with many questions, but all in a good way. I questioned whether Herra actually wrote down the memories that we were presented, or did they disappear with her into the Icelandic tradition of silence? And, if Icelanders didn’t want to listen to whole or even part truths, how much of what we are presented was a complete fabrication. Of course, I know that all of it had to be as this was a work of fiction, but I am still curious as to how many people will listen to what is being said with this book. I think too, that it calls into question not only validity of deathbed confessionals, with all the inaccuracies of memory and the erosive nature of time, but it also offers a gentle reminder that our parents and grandparents have lived experiences that they simply cannot talk about.
Finally, I always have a sense of trepidation when it comes to approaching books that I know are translations, especially when they are highly regarded in their original language. I was doubly hesitant knowing that Woman at 1,000 Degrees was translated from Icelandic as it is a language poetic in a way that traditional English composition simply is not. I am happy to say that in this case these concerns were completely unwarranted. The writing maintains echoes of Sagas, Eddas, and the poetry that has come to embody a nation; it is interwoven with rich cultural allusions; and it encapsulates the ways in both place and time can leave indelible impressions on the soul. The style of this book is nothing like I’ve ever read before – it is rich in imagery, dry in humour, and heartbreaking in the smallest possible ways leaving you absolutely shattered at the end.
Would I recommend this book? Oh hells to the yes! It has set the bar high in terms of 5* reads this year, and I have the feeling that this is one I will be rereading again soon. Sure, the vulgar language and raw approach won’t be for everyone, but I genuinely think that the style and subject matter will appeal to a broad range of aesthetics. I can’t wan’t for it to hit shelves in just a few days time, and I have every intention of shamelessly pushing it on all of my friends.
Take a gamble my book nerds, this is one you won’t regret!
Many thanks to Hillgrimur Helgason and Algonquin Books for providing an advanced copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.