Tag Archives: Hallgrímur Helgason

Books of the Year 2018: Part One

Looking back at 2017’s books of the year posts, I see I started with the state of the world and the need for distraction from it. If anything, things seem to have got worse out there but, as Cover imageever, books have provided both escape and enlightenment. H and I are still steering clear of politics over supper although there’s the odd furious outburst aimed not at each other but at the *expletives deleted* who seem to have been calling far too many shots. Anyway, enough of that and on to books. I’ve long since given up trying to curtail these posts so, just to warn you, there will be four of them, all with links to reviews on this blog.

January’s reading started well with Michelle de Kretser’s beautifully crafted, thoroughly engaging The Life to Come which manages to be both funny and poignant as it examines the state of Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one infuriating woman. Through the stories of Pippa’s friends and acquaintances, de Kretser deftly explores modern life with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour. Barbs are tossed at a multitude of modern obsessions, from social media to faddish food. Throughout it all, de Kretser’s penetrating observation and mordant humour is underpinned with compassion, most movingly so in the final section which explores the loneliness of old age.

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home kept me in Australia as it followed the Bobs family, who’ve  moved to Bacchus Marsh in an effort to escape Titch Bobs’ overbearing father, and their neighbour Willie Bachhuber who finds himself navigator in the Bobs’ attempt to win the inaugural 6,500-mile Redex Trial in 1953. Echoing the themes of The Life to Come, Carey’s novel tackles identity, racism, sexism and Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous people, all framed within the context of a riveting piece of storytelling with a rich vein of humour running through it. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Carey but a new novel by him is always worth investigating. My absolute favourite is Oscar and Lucinda, so much so that I’ve read it three times. I can’t quite put my finger on why but there’s something about the tone of A Long Way From Home that reminded me of it despite their very different subject matters.Cover image

January’s third favourite took me to France with Delphine de Vigan’s riveting Based on a True Story. I’m not a thriller fan but metafiction fascinates me which is what attracted me to this novel whose narrator, Delphine, finds her life entirely taken over by a woman she meets at a party. We know from the beginning that L. has had a sinister influence on Delphine, creating a psychological state in which she is unable even to send an email let alone begin her next book. The result is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, persistent doubts and questions. L. is chillingly convincing – manipulative, plausible and ultimately terrifying. Hard to avoid all the clichés associated with the genre when talking about this one  – ‘gripping’, ‘riveting’, ‘unputdownable’ – take your pick. All apply to this fiendishly smart piece of writing which has at its heart a debate about fiction and truth.

February began with Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves based loosely on the author’s family history, making her novel all the more poignant for this is not always a happy story. Struggling to keep the family farm afloat, Elsie Boston takes on a Land Girl. These two find a way to accommodate their very different habits until their lives become so entwined that they leave together when Elsie is forced off the farm. Twenty years later, Rene learns of the death of a close family friend to whom she owes a debt of gratitude. She and Elsie take in Bertha’s ageing, alcoholic husband who sets about disrupting their life. When Ernest finally dies it might almost seem a cause for celebration but then the police arrive. Malik combines quietly understated prose with cinematic, vivid episodes in this touching absorbing novel.

My other February favourite was also a novel based on true events. Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Woman at 1,000 Degrees grew out of a canvassing phone call made on behalf of his partner, a candidate in Iceland’s municipal elections. The third name on his list Cover imageturned 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 the granddaughter of Iceland’s first president. Renaming her Herra, both a woman’s name and Icelandic for ‘mister’, Helgason injects 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 as it tells the story of Herra’s remarkable life.

That’s it for the first two months of this year’s highlights. The next instalment covers March, April and May in which one title lives up to enormous hype, another takes me entirely by surprise and a third has quite possibly the longest title I’ve come across in a contemporary novel.

The Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrímur Helgason (Transl. Brian Fitzgibbon): You couldn’t make it up

Cover imageSometimes 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.

Books to Look Out for in February 2018: Part One

Cover imageFebruary’s shaping up quite nicely with lots of new titles and paperbacks to ease us through those dark, dank days and long nights here in the Northern Hemisphere. I’ll begin with Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Woman at 1000 Degrees whose eighty-year-old narrator lives alone in a garage, laptop and hand grenade at the ready. Herra recounts her adventurous life in a voice ‘by turns darkly funny, bawdy, poignant, and always, always smart’ taking us from ‘war-torn Europe, then to Argentina and finally to post-crash Iceland where the last pieces of this haunting puzzle fall into place’ according to the publishers, putting me in mind of the excellent Himmler’s Cook.

We’re sticking with an Icelandic author although not the country for Hotel Silence by Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir whose wonderfully eccentric Butterflies in November was a treat for me. Divorced, lonely and despairing, Jonas takes himself off on holiday not caring where he goes and with no thought of return. He fetches up at the dilapidated Hotel Silence in the middle of a war-torn country. As he learns more about his hosts and the horrors they’ve endured, his own troubles begin to dwindle into insignificance and he pitches in to help. Very much looking forward to this one.Cover image

Jillian Medoff’s This Could Hurt is set in an American HR department which may not sound the most riveting of backdrops but those of us who’ve done (or are still doing) time in offices know that they’re fertile ground for quiet drama. Five colleagues are hoping their small company will weather the economic storm, led by a steely head of the department. ‘Compelling, flawed, and heartbreakingly human, these men and women scheme, fall in and out of love, and nurture dreams big and small. As their individual circumstances shift, one thing remains constant – Rosa, the sun around whom they all orbit’ say the publishers going on to describe it as ‘achingly funny’ which makes it sound very attractive.

My next choice takes us to Paris where C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel sees a New Zealand academic involved in a complicated love life which encompasses his estranged French wife, his younger colleague and a troubled young English student. A missing Cézanne throws a further spanner into the works. ‘As much an ode to the power of literature as a nuanced exploration of love, fidelity and the balance of power within relationships’ say the publishers. I like the sound of that.

I’m ending this first batch of new titles, still in Paris, with one I’m not entirely sure about: Alicia Drake’s I Love You Too Much. Largely ignored by the adults around him, thirteen-year-old Paul watches from the fringes of his mother, her lover and his father’s lives. Before long he’s seen something he shouldn’t but finds unlikely consolation in Scarlett, a rebellious classmate. ‘I Love You Too Much is a novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, a devastating coming-of-age story told from the sidelines of Parisian perfection’ say the publishers. It’s the potential for cliché that niggles me here but we’ll see.

That’s it for now. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. There’ll be another selection of February treats shortly.