An elderly woman looks back on a life permanently scarred by World War II in this latest from Icelandic novelist Helgason (The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, 2012, etc.).
Reykjavik, 2009: 80-year-old Herra lives “alone in a garage, together with a laptop computer and an old hand grenade.” The laptop enables her to flirt with a bodybuilder in Australia and keep track of her three sons. They don’t visit much since she exited the nursing home they deemed appropriate for a woman with advanced emphysema and cancer. Herra doesn’t entirely blame them, freely admitting she was a lousy mother who drank too much and never stayed with one man for long. She may be planning her own cremation (at the 1,000 degrees of the title), but Herra recalls her amorous adventures with zest even as she wisecracks, “Men have their uses, but quick witted they sure ain’t.” Herra, by contrast, is exceedingly quick-witted and has a wickedly colorful way with words (well-rendered into English by FitzGibbon). Only when her recollections increasingly focus on the war years do we see that her verbal relish overlies profound trauma. The hand grenade is a memento of her father, seduced into Nazism while studying Old Norse in Germany. His enlistment in the German army ultimately results in Herra finding herself alone in the Hamburg train station at age 12. Her account of three years fending for herself in war-ravaged Europe is so brutally gripping that it’s a wrench to be yanked into the 1970s and the saga of Herra’s marriage to the drunken, abusive Baering. The novel never really recovers after this. It lurches between the '80s and a postwar sojourn in Argentina that seems to belong in another book before returning with diminished impact to the denouement of Herra’s wartime ordeal and her final present-day epiphany. Helgason’s fragmented chronology, so effective at first, proves to lack an overarching architecture that would unify its vivid pieces.
Brilliantly written with flashing insights, but an incoherent structure muffles its power.