Woman at 1,000 Degrees: A Novel by Hallgrímur Helgason

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“You are still, however, my sons, try as you might to  fight that fact. And that is and will undoubtedly be your everlasting handicap.”

The title refers to Eighty-year-old Herra Bjornsson who will be cremated when she’s dead has a standing appointment while she’s alive. While she waits to die she has her fun wiling away the days living in a garage in Reykjavik playing around with fake identities on social media. She can be young again, she can be anyone! Maybe there is cruelty in some of the deceptions, but it’s keeping her young, right? This is like sitting down beside one’s fiery grandmother(if you’re lucky enough to have one) with a history far more adventurous and ill-fated than you could ever conjure. Her youth enraptured me, I have a fondness for characters that have lived through atrocities, I wonder at the strength human beings are capable of. As they say, you are stronger where you break. Or so we hope. “Human beings have always had a need for disasters. If nature doesn’t provide them for us, we create them ourselves.” If that isn’t a nugget of truth, I don’t know what is. In war, there is a strange order in the chaos. Everyone is suffering, everyone’s ‘life is raped’ and it requires a certain numbness to survive.  No one can empathize with another’s plight too much, as everyone is living with horrors. Terrible things happen to Herra Bjornsson and warmth, humanity is found in the strangest of places. With her fierce youthful curiosity she befriends a prostitute, while skipping school. As she points out, behind each door in the war-torn cities there is a woman, doors leading to lives as if in grand novels- tragic, dramatic, horrific. I enjoyed following her escapades of youth, scorned or broken women whispering secrets to her like “Don’t become a woman.” As of there is a way to stop it, telling her to ‘be a person‘ instead, and she does try over the years and has her fun, her many partners, her drunken nights rich with conversations.  In such times, what could be worse than being a woman, losing sons, husbands, being raped or forced into prostitution or worse, and there is always worse. Forced to separate from her parents, sent to live on an ‘island of women’ with war on, staying in the home of Frau Baum she shares a room with Heike, and becomes just another mouth to feed, hence she accidentally becomes a little Icelandic girl helping Hitler’s cause. Hunger, absence, frugality, the small business children learned to run to put food in their belly- these are things most of us can only read about and try to wrap our minds around from the distance of the present. Sharing a hungry love in the forest with a Polish man named Marek, until she becomes nothing more than a foolish “Germnay Girl” in his mind. There is no innocence left after but her grenade remains with her to fuel the memories of wartime. War shaped Herra Bjornsson, an orphan of war, a victim and yet a survivor, a fighter!

I didn’t always like her, let’s face it, she has her selfish moments as a mother but I felt for her. Her youth and the war had her begging to be seduced by a Nazi/Poet, and shamed for it but really, who can’t understand the unimaginable hunger for human warmth, the confusion and chaos of a teenage girl who is learning firsthand the brutality of men? Of war? Admitting to the eroticism of the forbidden, her youth is far more obvious. She always seems to understand the measure of every situation too late. How soon she will learn just what Nazi’s are capable of.

How was she as a mother? …”I’m on my way to the oven.” She tells her sons, with her old beating heart and stale thoughts, her boys whose names they share with three Norwegian Kings, sons that have shoved her in a nursing home, one she immediately escapes. Sons she has dragged around like luggage as she finds a life that doesn’t confine her just to be a woman, a mother. In the present she hates the “Rainmaker”, wife to her youngest, and gets up to mischief to expose her sins. What’s a little cyber-crime anyway for an old woman not long for this world? What can she do to wake her son, to shake some back bone back in place?  The boys she took off to Paris to raise, boys who saw men come in and out of their mother’s life until it was time to leave the beauty and return to the ugliness she missed in her homeland. Not much of a mother, the boys raising her, as she fights the role of motherhood and male dominance. But nothing seems to ever be still nor settled for her. None of her plans turn out as she imagined them, some ending even in death- of strangers, lovers, a golden child…

The story jumps through time and memories branded in Herra Bjornsson’s mind and not many of them happy ones yet there is humor. This is meant to make you uncomfortable, it was an ugly time. If Herra has any luck, it’s  for survival but it costs her. She certainly has a rocky fate and meets earth shattering tragedy but somehow manages to cling to life. Her early childhood was one of privilege but her dad’s loyalty to the wrong side in war becomes a  ‘plague o’ your house’- channeling a little Shakespeare there, I am. I don’t know if everyone would enjoy this novel, I have grown up with so many stories of war and occupation from my father’s side that I tend to devour books written about such. It’s rich in painful memories, and a little disjointed but it worked as it’s coming from the aged mind of a dying woman. War does something to people, it hardens so many, and as she tells us, there certainly wasn’t salvation back then, no psychologists looking to shake the horrors of war out of anyone, let alone poor Herra. The ending is abrupt, but then again- death is too so it follows.

Publication Date: January 9, 2018

Algonquin Books

 

 

 

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