After the life she’s had, it’s probably not a surprise that Herbjörg María Björnsson (better known as Herra) is living out her last months alone in a garage with only the internet to keep her company. She was a mostly absent mother. Her father was in the SS. She curses, smokes, and sleeps with whoever takes her fancy. But the more I learned about Herra in Hallgrímur Helgason’s Woman at 1,000 Degrees (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), the more I pitied and understood her struggles against conventionality. Her story is a wild, fascinating, moving journey across most of the twentieth century.
Herra is a prickly old woman. Her deteriorating condition (she has metastatic cancer) is not helping. This novel gives us the chance to keep Herra company as she starts to reminisce about her past, from her early days with her mother on a remote Breiðafjörður island, off the west coast of Ireland, to her time wandering the length of Germany during the Second World War, to scheming in Argentina, and her constant attempts to come home. With each chapter, the layers of her personality are stripped away to reveal her darkest secrets.
Herra blames her father and Hitler equally for ruining her life. If Hans Henrik hadn’t been a weak man who was existentially attracted to the appearance of strength, perhaps the family would have been able to stay in Lübeck for the duration. Hans Henrik would’ve become a Norse scholar and everything might have been fine. But Hans Henrik signs up for Nazism, the family gets split up, and nothing ever goes right again.
No one else in her family seems to know how much Herra struggles. To be fair to them, Herra can’t seem to articulate why she feels the need to cut and run so often or why she feels the need to be an apologist for her mistaken Nazi father. It’s also really uncomfortable to hear an 80+ year old woman talk about sex. This chance to listen in on Herra had me thinking about how much the years 1939 to 1945 left lasting damage on everyone it touched. I realize these last paragraphs make this book sound depressing (and there some very depressing parts, sure), but it leaves out how funny Herra is and how full of life she is even at the end.
When I started Woman at 1,000 Degrees, I was amused by Herra’s humor and refusal to act her age. I had no idea what I was in for. This novel turned into a tale of astonishing emotional depth. Like all great books, Woman at 1,000 Degrees builds up a perfect portrait of a unique woman who is the result of everything that has ever happened to her.