Sometimes books arrive with stories about how they came to be written which are almost as fascinating as what’s inside them. Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Woman at 1,000 Degrees grew out of a canvassing phone call he made on behalf of his partner, a candidate in Iceland’s municipal elections. The third name on his list turned out to belong to an eighty-year-old woman living in a garage who kept him talking for nearly an hour. A few years later, Helgason chased down the identity of his late conversationalist to find that she was Brynhilder Georgía Björnsson, granddaughter of Iceland’s first president. Renaming her Herra, which is both a woman’s name and Icelandic for ‘mister’, Helgason spins a tale which is funny and tragic, hanging it on the bare bones of Björnsson’s story.
Herra lies on a bed in a rented garage, her trusty laptop and ancient hand grenade at her side. She’s made herself an appointment at the crematorium, determined not to see out another Christmas. She keeps herself occupied with her many stolen Facebook identities, causing havoc by merrily hacking her daughter-in-law’s email and telling us her story. Born in 1929, Herra is the daughter of a country girl and a diplomat’s son, brought up for seven years on one of Iceland’s many islands before her father finally got around to acknowledging his daughter taking her and her mother to Denmark where his father was Iceland’s ambassador. They settle into society life then war breaks out. Denmark is occupied by Germany while Iceland, then part of Denmark, is taken by the British. Herra’s father opts to become a Nazi, welcomed into the party with open arms as a child of the fabled Aryan island. Herra’s mother thinks the less of him, staying in Copenhagen while he takes himself off to Lübeck, but these two find it difficult to stay apart. In 1941, dispatched to Germany with promises to follow, Herra waits on Hamburg station for her mother until her father says he can stay no longer leaving his twelve-year-old daughter alone in what is already a wreck of a city. For the rest of the war Herra fends for herself: homeless, hungry, prey to rapists, she survives on her wits occasionally encountering kindness and love. When the war ends, she and her hapless father find their way to Argentina where another chapter begins.
Helgason narrates his novel in Herra’s voice, injecting a good deal of black humour into a story which spends much of its time exploring the worst of human behaviour, managing to both entertain and horrify. Herra adopts a carapace of sharp-tongued wit, determinedly hiding the pain of lifelong grief, loss and suffering. Much of the novel is taken up with the war but there are some nicely discursive episodes – Herra returns to Hamburg in the ‘60s where she’s snogged by John Lennon who’s appalled to find she’s nearly thirty; the 2009 scenes take a few digs at the crookery of the Icelandic financial industry via one of Herra’s sons. It’s a novel that took me a little while to get into – there’s a good deal of family background to get through in the first few chapters – but once Herra’s credentials were established her story took off and I was hooked. Helgason’s acknowledgements are well worth reading, ending on a nice note thanking his readers for sticking with him to the end: Without your support the writer is just a tree falling in the forest.