Go Cantankerous and Hacking Your In-Laws Emails Into That Goodnight
Herra, now an old woman in her eighties, lives crippled with arthritis in a garage, and tells us the story of her life – with no holds barred, and no triumph, tragedy or indignity left unexamined. And Herra has much to examine. She briefly knew (and snogged) John Lennon, she survived the second World War (just), she has had children (who now very rarely visit her, which she doesn’t really mind because there have been betrayals on both sides), and her company is the Internet (which she uses to stalk and hack her in-laws, among other, less reputable, things).
She is a crotchety, foul-mouthed old woman, though perhaps this is unfair as her foulness is really just an amused and experienced distance from life. She says of her nurse-cum-help ‘Poor Loa says she drinks beer only on those few occasions when she bares her beaver.’
It’s a completely lovable book, winding and rambling in parts (like the favourite old great aunt you wish you had, and whom you know you would adore), and at times Herra is utterly repulsive, annoying and outrageously offensive (again like that fictive old great aunt).
Herra looks forward to enjoying her end with the same frankly amused relish with which she has enjoyed her whole life. When she begins to plan her own cremation (which she wants to take place mid-December because she can’t abide the thought of one more bloody Christmas), the ‘dim-witted’ girl who takes the unusual booking is bemused but extraordinarily helpful, under the circumstances.
‘I don’t want to be half-cooked. A thousand degrees, you say?’
‘Yes, yes, don’t worry, we can heat it up well in advance before…’
‘Yes, and I go in headfirst, right?’
The Woman at 1000 Degrees is an account of the highlights and lowlights of the twentieth century viewed through the lens of the cantankerous, amoral and smartly louche Herra, who looks on the chaos of life’s mistakes, joys and evils with exasperated tolerance and amusement, and her relationships as fleeting joys to be relished in the moment then let go. She dismisses Nazism as one long birthday party for an attention-seeking Hitler, who, she says, was obviously in want of love.
The terrible, beautiful heart of the novel lies in the journey of Herra’s early life as a young girl surviving alone in the midst of the Second World War. These parts of the book, surrounded by artefacts of the stories of her later years and the unselfconscious, unselfpitying depth of experience with which the character imbues them, are a long, slow gaze into the depths of humanity.
The novel is often a little slow and rambling, drifting from one of Herra’s tales to the next, jumping from country to country as she wends her way through the world, but all of her tales, in the end, come together in a fantastically shattering crescendo, like an orchestra with perfect timing, perfect skills, perfect pitch. Helgason has captured perfectly this character (based loosely on a woman he spoke to accidentally and incidentally in 2006), and she is not only unique, but is also almost a grand collective voice, speaking – and laughing – for us all.
Herra’s is an ancient voice, the voice of a pragmatic (and often, realistically, reluctant) mother: ‘On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that they will even attend their mother’s funeral. They’re busy men’; the voice of the party girl who snogged John Lennon in 1960, and the voice for all of us who, when the time comes, which will hopefully be later rather than sooner, do not wish to go gentle into that goodnight.
Published by: Oneworld. Publish date: 1st February 2018
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.