Hallgrimur Helgason’s novel Woman at 1,000 Degrees centers on Herra, an 80-year-old Icelandic woman waiting to die in a garage with an old hand grenade and a laptop ... This is, in part, a comic novel in the vein of Helgason’s global bestseller 101 Reykjavik. But Woman at 1,000 Degrees contains a variety of tones as Herra moves back and forth through the decades of her life, with an emphasis on World War II ... The life she leads is tragic, and in the end, readers will understand why Herra clutches her grenade so close ... She is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, but her perspective might be just what we need in these uncertain times: She survives and shares her story on her terms. And what a story it is, one worth reading to further understand the complexity of World War II — and to enjoy the quick wit of a woman you won’t forget.
Old Hera Bjornsson is dying, and she can’t wait. She’s made herself an appointment at the crematorium for the 14th, and she doesn’t want to miss it. She’s looking forward to being, as the book’s title suggests, Woman at 1,000 Degrees ...we learn from what she tells us she’s done, and how she tells us, that this is a woman who refuses to be redacted or reduced to the role of daughter, wife, mother, victim, whore, or criminal ...This is a profoundly, triumphantly feminist book, a fact that, depending on your view of such things, may or may not be undercut by the fact that it’s written by a man ...Helgason’s story could be seen as a riff on the Wife of Bath’s Tale, without the stuff about King Arthur, and if she hadn’t been so concerned with giving her story a moral. Helgason can write beautifully, like his Icelandic contemporary, Sjon, and he can be perfectly dark and crass, like his other mononymic contemporary, the cartoonist Dagsson. But unlike either, he can do both at once, often on the same page.
With this request, the reader is launched into Herra's jarring first-person narration, bordering on stream-of-consciousness, that carries us [in a] zig-zag fashion... On her journey, she encounters one atrocity after another, and recounts each with a mixture of bravery, bravado, horror, and resignation. At first, Herra's chilling, bawdy narration is off-putting. But after witnessing her descriptions of cruelty, rape, and the smell of burning bodies at Treblinka, the reader understands full well how the monstrosity of war can whittle away human decency when sufferers relive...scenes through Herra's eyes, skillfully composed by author Helgason and adeptly translated by Brian FitzGibbon, expose the boundaries of descriptive language with arresting similes ... Woman at 1,000 Degrees is not for the faint-hearted. Rather than distancing itself as a remote historical account, Herra's point of view carries the reader atop her back, it seems, experiencing her degradation in excruciating detail ...a bold work of fiction that gnaws at the silence blanketing the blackest holes of humanity to lay bare the author's dark vision of truth.