Woman at 1,000 Degrees

A Novel


By Hallgrímur Helgason

Translated by Brian FitzGibbon

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“THE HOTTEST NEW BOOK FROM ICELAND IS WOMAN AT 1,000 DEGREES . . . What a story it is, one worth reading to further understand the complexity of World War II—and to enjoy the quick wit of a woman you won’t forget.” —Bethanne Patrick, The Washington Post

“I live here alone in a garage, together with a laptop computer and an old hand grenade. It’s pretty cozy.”

Herra Björnsson is at the beginning of the end of her life. Oh, she has two weeks left, maybe three—she has booked her cremation appointment, at a crispy 1,000 degrees, so it won’t be long. But until then she has her cigarettes, a World War II–era weapon, some Facebook friends, and her memories to sustain her.

And what a life this remarkable eighty-year-old narrator has led. In the internationally bestselling and award-winning Woman at 1,000 Degrees, which has been published in fourteen languages, noted Icelandic novelist Hallgrímur Helgason has created a true literary original. From Herra’s childhood in the remote islands of Iceland, where she was born the granddaughter of Iceland’s first president, to teen years spent living by her wits alone in war-torn Europe while her father fought on the side of the Nazis, to love affairs on several continents, Herra Björnsson moved Zelig-like through the major events and locales of the twentieth century. She wed and lost husbands, had children, fled a war, kissed a Beatle, weathered the Icelandic financial crash, and mastered the Internet. She has experienced luck and betrayal and upheaval and pain, and—with a bawdy, uncompromising spirit—she has survived it all.

Now, as she awaits death in a garage in Reykjavík, she shows us a woman unbowed by the forces of history. Each part of Herra’s story is a poignant piece of a puzzle that comes together in the final pages of this remarkable, unpredictable, and enthralling novel.


Woman at 1,000 Degrees

a novel by
Hallgrímur Helgason
translated by Brian FitzGibbon

This book has been translated with financial support from

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2018

Author's Note

Woman at 1,000 Degrees is a novel. It is partly based on events that actually occurred and people who lived and died, but it should be emphasized that the story is a work of fiction. Hans Henrik, Gudrún Marsibil, and Herbjörg María are fictional characters in this novel. The author would therefore like to ask readers to show consideration for the models they may be based on and not confuse their real stories with the fates he has invented for them in this book.

History is factual, novels are fictional.























































































































About the Author

About Algonquin


1929 Model


I live here alone in a garage, together with a laptop computer and an old hand grenade. It's pretty cozy. My bed is a hospital bed and I don't need any other furniture except for the toilet, which is a real drag to use. It's such a long way to travel, all along the bed and then the same distance again over to the corner. I call it my Via Dolorosa and I have to totter across it three times a day, like any other rheumatic ghost. My dream is to be hooked up to a catheter and a bedpan, but my application got stuck in the system. There's constipation everywhere.

There aren't many windows here, but the world appears to me through my computer screen. E-mails come and go, and good old Facebook just keeps on going, like life itself. Glaciers melt, presidents darken, and people lament the loss of cars and houses. But the future awaits at the end of the baggage claim carousel, slant eyed and smirking. Oh yes, I follow it all from my old white bed, where I languish like a useless corpse, waiting to die or to be given a life-prolonging injection. They look in on me twice a day, the girls from the Reykjavík Home Care Services. The morning shift is a real darling, but the afternoon hag has cold hands and bad breath and empties the ashtray with a vacant air.

But if I shut my eye to the world, switch off the lamp above me, and allow the autumn darkness to fill the garage, I can make out the famous Imagine Peace Tower through a narrow window high up on the wall. Because the late John Lennon has now been turned into a pillar of light up here in Iceland, lighting up the black strait on long nights. His widow was kind enough to place him vertically in my line of vision. Yes, it's good to doze off to an old flame.

Of course, you could say I'm just vegetating in this garage like any other old vintage clunker that has run its course. I mentioned this to Gudjón one day. He and Dóra are the couple who rent me the garage at 65,000 kronur a month. Good Gudjón laughed and declared I was an Oldsmobile. I surfed the net and found a photo of an Oldsmobile Viking, 1929 model. To be honest, I hadn't realized I'd grown so darn old. It looked like a slightly revamped horse carriage.

I've been lying alone in this garage for eight years now, bedridden because of the emphysema that's plagued me for three times that long. The slightest movement cuts my breath away until I'm on the point of choking—not a pleasant feeling, the discomfort of the unburied, they used to call it in the old days. The result of decades of smoking. I've been sucking on cigarettes since the spring of 1945, when a warty Swede first introduced me to these wonders. And their glow still makes me glow. They offered me a mask with nasal tubes that was supposed to make it easier for me to breathe, but to get the oxygen cylinder they told me I'd have to give up smoking "because of the fire hazard." So I was forced to choose between two gentlemen: Nicotine, the Russian Count, and Oxygen, the British Lord. It was an easy choice. Consequently, I draw my breath like a steam engine, and my voyages to the toilet remain my daily penance. But little Lóa likes going in there and I enjoy the tinkling music of her maiden's piddle. She's my help.

Oh, I'm rambling. When you've lived through a whole Internet of events, a whole shipload of days, it's hard to distinguish one thing from another. It all flows into one big muddle of time. Either I suddenly remember everything at once or I remember nothing at all.

Oh yeah, and then our nation collapsed, been a year now. But it's all relative, of course. Dóra and the nurses assure me that the city is still standing. There are no visible signs of the crash in Reykjavík, unlike in Berlin when I roamed through it as a silly young lass, after its fall at the end of the war. And I don't know which is better—an overt crash or a covert one.

Personally, I reveled in the crash. Throughout the boom years I'd lain bedridden while the greed around me was devouring all my savings, so it didn't upset me to see them disappear into the bonfire, since by then I'd developed a slight indifference to money. We spend our entire lives trying to put something away for old age, but then old age arrives with no dreams of luxury beyond the ambition of being able to pee lying down. I won't deny that it would have been nice to shop around for some German boy toy and have him stand here, half-naked in the candlelight, declaiming Schiller to his old pillow hag, but apparently they've banned the flesh trade in our country now, so there's no point in bemoaning that. I've nothing left except a few weeks of life, two cartons of Pall Malls, a laptop, and a hand grenade, and I've never felt better.


Feu de Cologne


The hand grenade is an old Hitler's egg that I acquired in the last war. It's accompanied me over the rivers and fjords of my life, through all my marriages, thick and thin. And now, at last, would be the time to use it, had not the seal broken off many years ago, on a bad day in my life. But it's an uncomfortable way to die, of course, to embrace a firestorm like that and allow it to blow your head off. And to tell the truth, I've grown quite fond of my blessed little bomb after all these years. It would be sad if my grandchildren weren't able to enjoy it, in a silver bowl inside an heirloom cabinet.

Meine geliebte Handgranate is beautiful in its deceit, fits nicely in one's hand, and cools a sweaty palm with its cold iron shell crammed with peace. That's the really remarkable thing about weapons: although they can be unpleasant for those who get in their way, they provide their holders with a great deal of comfort. Once, many cities ago, I left my golden egg in a cab and couldn't put my mind to rest until I'd recovered it again, after countless frantic calls to the cab station. The cabby hovered awkwardly on the stairs, trying to figure it out.

"That's an old hand grenade, isn't it?"

"No, it's a piece of jewelry. Have you never heard of the Imperial Fabergé eggs?"

At any rate, for a long time I kept it in my jewelry box.

"What's that?" my charming sea bear Bæring once asked me, as we were about to set off for a ball.

"It's a perfume, Feu de Cologne."

"Really?" the old sailor gasped in astonishment.

Men have their uses, but quick witted they sure ain't.

And it never hurt to know that the hand grenade was there in my handbag when the night was over and some jerk wanted to take me home.

Now I keep it either in my bedside table or between my rotting legs, lying on the German steel egg like some postwar hen, in the hope of hatching some fire—something that is so sorely missed in this dreary thing that society has become, totally devoid of violence. It can do people only good to lose the roof over their head or see their loved ones shot in the back. I've always had problems with people who've never had to clamber over dead bodies.

But maybe if I throw it on the floor it'll go off? Hand grenades love stone floors, I once heard. Yes, of course, it would be wonderful to exit with a bang and leave them to pick through the dust and debris in the hope of finding some morsels of my flesh. But before I explode, permit me to review my life.


Herra Björnsson


I was born in the autumn of 1929, in a tin can of a house in Ísafjördur. And got saddled with the peculiar name Herbjörg María, which never suited me, nor itself for that matter. A blend of pagan and Christian strands that mixed like oil and water, and those sister elements still wrestle inside me.

Mom wanted to name me Verbjörg, after her mother, but Grandma wouldn't hear of it. It was too close to verbúd, the Icelandic word for "fisherman's hut," where she claimed people led wet, cold, and miserable lives, and she cursed her own mother for naming her after such a shameful thing. Grandma Vera rowed seventeen fishing seasons between the little islands of Bjarneyjar and Oddbjarnarsker, winter, spring, and autumn, "in the rat-pissing rain they've invented in that briny hell of theirs, and it was even worse on land."

My father suggested Herbjörg instead, and apparently my mother didn't hate him enough to disagree. Personally, I would have chosen the name of my maternal great-grandmother, the great Blómey Efemía Bergsveinsdóttir. She was the only woman to bear that name in the history of Iceland until the twentieth century, when, after lying in the island's soil for fifty years, she finally acquired two namesakes. One was a textile artist who lived in a dilapidated shack, while the other Blómey, my little Blómey, who departed from us very young but still lives on in the dearest realms of my soul and appears to me now and then in that strip of grass that separates dream from reality.

We should be baptized for death, just as we're baptized for life, and allowed to choose the name that will appear on our gravestone for all eternity. I see it before me now: Blómey Hansdóttir (1929–2009).

In those days no one had two first names. But just before I was born, my dear and gifted mother had a vision: the Virgin Mary appeared to her in a valley on the other side of the fjord and sat there on a rock, about four hundred feet tall. For this reason her name was added to mine, and of course it must have brought some blessings with it. At any rate, I have endured all the way to this peak of my now bedridden existence.

"María" softens the harshness of "Herbjörg," but I doubt that two more different women have ever shared the same life. One sacrificed her snatch to God, while the other devoted hers to a whole army of men.

I was not permitted to be called dóttir (daughter), even though it is the right and privilege of all Icelandic women. Instead, I became a "son." My father's kin, sprinkled fore and aft with ministers and ambassadors, had made their careers abroad, where no one uses anything but surnames. And so the entire family was nailed to the head of one man, forced to carry the surname of Granddad Sveinn Björnsson (who became Iceland's ambassador to Denmark and eventually our first president). No other member of the family was able to make a name for himself, and that was why we failed to produce any more ministers or presidents. Grandfather had reached the summit, and the role of his children and grandchildren was to go slithering down the slope. It's hard to preserve any ambition when one is constantly on the way down. But naturally, at some point, we'll reach the bottom, and then the only way forward for the Björnsson tribe will be back up again.

At home I was always called Hera, but when, at the age of seven, I visited my father's family in Copenhagen with my parents, their maid had trouble pronouncing "Hera" and called me either Herre (the Danish word for "Mister") or Den Lille Herre (the Little Gentleman). My cousin Puti found this highly amusing and from then on never called me anything but Herra, the Icelandic word for "Mister." At first this teasing hurt me because I really did look a bit like a boy, but the nickname stuck, and I gradually became used to it. So that's how a miss became a mister.

In small-town Reykjavík I received considerable attention when I arrived back in the 1950s after a long stay abroad, a radiant young lady with lipstick and worldly ways, and the sobriquet was almost akin to a stage name: "Other guests included Miss Herra Björnsson, granddaughter of Iceland's president, who draws attention wherever she goes on account of her open and cosmopolitan demeanor—Herra has just returned home to Iceland after a long stay in New York and South America." So the unfortunate name produced some good fortune.


Hotel Iceland


My father, Hans Henrik, was the firstborn of Sveinn Björnsson and his Danish wife, Georgía. He was born in 1908 and was therefore four years younger than my mother. She was the daughter of the aforementioned Verbjörg Jónsdóttir and a one-night stand named Salómon, who died in the storm of 1927.

Mom was always called Massa, although her name was actually Gudrún Marsibil Salbjörg Salómonsdóttir. She had been given the names of the three women who had helped Grandma the most. As Grandma liked to say, "Since I'd been such a miser with my eggs, I had to give all the names to my Massa." And it paid off. The three women had obviously fused in Mom to produce one good one. A triply good one. If Grandma Vera had been "good and good," as she would often say about things, then Mom was good and good and good. Then I came along and I wasn't even plain good. Somehow I was totally devoid of that gentle, tireless spirit, kindness, and innate sense of sacrifice associated with the Svefneyjar islands of Breidafjördur, where I spent my first seven years. I was a rotten mother and an even worse granny.

Mom and Dad met in Reykjavík, at a ball in the Hotel Iceland, or so the story goes. Maybe they'd met dead drunk up some blind alley and ripped each other's clothes off behind a trash can. What do we know of our conception? Barely more than "God" about the creation of the universe.

Massa was a lively girl from the West Fjords, who lodged at Mrs. Höpfner's, at Hafnarstræti 5. Dad had yet to finish high school, a pale, intelligent boy with timid eyes, a privileged child who lived south of the Reykjavík lake, in the second-nicest house in town. Granddad Sveinn and Grandma Georgía had become an ambassadorial couple in Copenhagen by then, so Dad lived alone in the big house with the cook and a paternal aunt who was entrusted with the care of the boy and later blamed herself for how things had turned out. Dad's best friend was Benni Thors, who lived next door in the finest house in the country. Benni's father was the wealthiest man in the land, and his brother Ólafur later became prime minister.

How could a boy with a background like my father's have fallen for a maid from the west who'd been conceived in a rowboat under a glacier and, worse still, came with a past and was a whole four years older than he was? It was obviously no small feat to bring me into this world. But the Almighty Farmer Above, as my grandma used to call the Creator, had cast his nets and hooks over the town and lured my future father into a drinking binge with the Thors brothers that night, and they dragged him to the Hotel Iceland, chucking pebbles at the ducks on the way and chanting the latest hit song at the cops they passed—"I scream for ice cream!"—while Mom was doing up her face in her Hafnarstræti loft and giggling herself into the mood with her friend Berta, the broad-faced daughter of a teacher.

As soon as they got into the place, Dad, of course, had to pee and got delayed in the toilets, cornered by a dead-drunk employee of the Icelandic Steamship Company, who immediately had something to say about Dad's father, who had founded the company: "A great man, your father, great man. But how's it going? Doesn't he get bored there in the embassy?"

It unfolded as follows: when Dad finally stumbled out of the men's room, the first thing he saw was a girl who had just sat down at a table with her friend—a thick-armed beauty from the Svefneyjar islands with bushy eyebrows, three men under her belt, and one at the bar.

Through the hubbub of the dance a blond cupid whispered her destiny into her ears, and she turned her head as Dad walked by. Her dark red lipstick singed itself into his soul, along with her black eyebrows and sea-pebble blue eyes. Her skin white, all so evenly white, like a calm white sea between those enchanted islands. He was clueless when it came to girls and always remained so, but he felt a comforting security as a kind of paralysis took hold of his heart, and a heavy blow from that Breidafjördur gaze struck his forehead.

Mom rolled her eyes at her friend, and they smirked: a typical Reykjavík lad.

Two glasses later he came staggering across the dance floor, like a small salmon elbowing his way through a shoal of herring, and stopped in front of her table. He planted himself there in a swaying position and started acting stupid: pressing his arms against his sides and gesticulating with his right hand as he lifted his right leg and cackled, as if he were trying to mimic a goose trying to piss like a dog. He repeated this act at least three times, playing a goose trying to piss like a dog. Mom endured my father's idiocy with that uniquely Icelandic forbearance and rewarded him three out of five possible smiles. (No woman can resist a man who is willing to make a fool out of himself for her. It's an unequivocal declaration of love.) She shifted back one seat just before an invisible hand struck the back of my father's neck and pushed him down on the chair she had just freed.

"What's your name?" he asked with moist lips.

"Huh?" (The band was playing a lively polka.)

"What's your name?"

"Gudrún Marsibil."

Mom exchanged a glance with Berta, who sat at the other end of the table with her broad face and curly black hair.


"Gudrún Marsibil."

Mom threw another glance at Berta, who seemed amused, with her big chin and small eyes so wide apart.

"Gudrún Marsibil . . . ," he parroted, releasing a drink-laden gasp, like a marathon runner who has finally crossed the finish line and hears his time, which he repeats to himself, before collapsing from fatigue: "Gudrún Marsibil . . ."

"And you?"


"What's your name?" (A smirk in her voice.)

"Me? I'm Jan Flemming. Jan Flemming Pedersen Havtroj."

"Huh? Are you Danish?"

"Yes, I've got bloody Danish skin and I can't get rid of it!"

He pulled on the skin of his right wrist with the fingers of his left hand and let go of it, like an elastic. He repeated this and then attacked his arm and skull and finally slapped himself across the cheek: "Just can't! Oh! Damned, damned Dane."

"But you speak very good Icelandic."

"Are you with someone?"


"And where is he?"

"He's over there."



She pointed at a short man with a big head who was approaching the table with a bottle of wine and three glasses and a deadly serious air.

"That guy with the forehead?"

"Yeah." (Laughter.)

"What's his name?"



"Yeah, Adalsteinn."


"Yeah. Or just Steinn."

"Or just Steinn? Can't he make his mind up? If I were your boyfriend . . . Your eyes are like stones. Two stones."

"Oh yeah?"

"Can I have them?"

Everything that came out of him was unclear. He was totally hammered, with his fringe toppling over his forehead and shaking incessantly.

"Have them?"

"Yeah. Can I have them?"

And then something odd happened, something that can only be explained as a key stroke in the weaving of destiny.

"Well then."

The short man with the big head had reached the table, where he put down the three glasses and bottle of wine. He muttered something that no one heard and sat in front of Mom. The stern eyes under his swollen forehead were like two fishermen's huts under a steep cliff. He filled the glasses. Not very well, as if he had never offered anyone else a drink before.

"Alli, this is . . . Jan . . . er . . . Flemming, didn't you say? Is your name really Jan? Your name isn't Jan. You're Icelandic."

"That's Björnsson. A bourgeois bastard," said the forehead man in a voice that was strangely strong and deep. It flowed out of his frail body like a tow cable from a dinghy.

"Huh? Do you know him?" Mom asked.

"I thought you ducklings weren't allowed to drink."

It was like the voice of a mountain piercing through a colony of screeching birds.

"Huh?" Dad exclaimed in his alcoholic haze, smiling internally at the two sea stones that Mom had just given him. Adalsteinn ignored him and raised his glass: "Cheers!" Mom and Berta crashed glasses with him.


  • “Published in 13 languages, this novel about one feisty Icelandic woman’s proximity to history’s big moments is a thoroughly entertaining ride.”

    “Incredibly funny, incredibly insightful and incredibly moving.”
    Fiona Mozley, author of Elmet

    “[Herra's] story, based on true events, is no predictable chronicle of wartime woe . . . the narrator recounts her misshapen life with engaging vividness.”
    The New Yorker

    “[Herra’s] perspective might be just what we need in these uncertain times: She survives and shares her story on her terms. And what a story it is, one worth reading to further understand the complexity of World War II—and to enjoy the quick wit of a woman you won’t forget.”
    Washington Post

    “Compelling . . .  Uplifting . . . Required reading for those who want sour along with the sweet in life.”
    New York Journal of Books

    “This rollicking novel . . . is as delightful as it is dirty.”
    Minneapolis Star Tribune

    “One of the most original novels of the year.”
    Irish Independent

    “This is a profoundly, triumphantly feminist book . . . There's nothing like it in our language.”
    Toronto Star

    “Icelandic novelist Helgason shares with John Irving a knack for masterful plotting and clever, sarcastic humor . . . anyone willing to . . . revel in its flights of language will find much to enjoy.”

    “Helgason’s sad and funny novel begins in 2009, as 80-year-old Herra Björnsson lies dying in a Reykjavík garage, still in possession of a live hand grenade from World War II . . . In her unsentimental, unsparing narrative, she offers insights into Icelandic culture and character, including a riff on reticence and a brief summary of Iceland’s financial meltdown. Like the Icelandic landscape, she can be both appealing and treacherous.”
    Publishers Weekly, starred review

    “Herra . . . is exceedingly quick-witted and has a wickedly colorful way with words . . .  Brilliantly written with flashing insights.”
    Kirkus Reviews

    “Long after I read it, the story and its prickly protagonist has stayed with me.”
    Esmeralda Santiago, author of When I Was Puerto Rican  (via Vulture)
    “Helgason’s novel is superbly written, with characters and events that grab your attention and make it hard to put down.”
    —Tulsa Book Review
    “Unpredictable and endearing.”
    Jacksonville Journal-Courier
    Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

    “Woman at 1,000 Degrees is extraordinarily absorbing and enjoyable. The story revolves around a woman who lived ahead of her time. Many young women would idealize Herra Björnsson. At the same time, it gives an insight into life during World War II.”
    —The Washington Book Review

    “A deathbed recollection aglow with vitality, Woman at 1,000 Degrees leads us though the many tumultuous lives of Herra Björnsson, barrelling through historic darkness at a seemingly impossible pitch, one that offers moments of humor amid the sharpest of sorrows and alienation. This novel is a shock, a laugh, an evocation of grief, and a tribute to survival and imagination; Helgason’s vivid talents give

On Sale
Jan 8, 2019
Page Count
416 pages
Algonquin Books

Hallgrímur Helgason

Hallgrímur Helgason

About the Author

Hallgrímur Helgason was born in Reykjavík, Iceland, in 1959. He started out as an artist and debuted as a novelist in 1990, gaining international attention with his third novel, 101 Reykjavík, which was translated into fourteen languages and made into a film. He has thrice been nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, including for his novel Woman at 1,000 Degrees. Also a columnist and a father of three, he now divides his time between Reykjavík and Hrísey Island. His website is HallgrimurHelgason.com.

Learn more about this author