Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg

2014 Limelight Reviews
Classics, General Fiction, Mystery and Crime

Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (first published as Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, c1992), translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally. New York : Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1993.

The narrator, 37-year-old “ice maiden” Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, is unfriendly, unmarried, unsentimental, often bitter and sarcastic but smart and apparently very physically fit. Smilla takes pleasure in being as cold as the ice and snow that accompany her memories of hunting as a child with her Inuit mother,  a familiarity that has led to her scientific career as an expert in the formation, melting and general characteristics of snow and ice. She is half-Danish and half-Greenlander in a modern world where Greenland has fallen under the control of Denmark, where Smilla now lives.

The dizzying plot of this international bestseller begins at an apartment block in Copenhagen is too complex to summarise. Smilla grows suspicious about the violent death of her neighbour’s, aroused by the odd tracks his feet have left in the snow. The twists and turns and bizarre scenes read like a film script, penned by someone who might have seen too many B-grade “action” films. Not surprisingly, the film adaptation of the novel was released in 1997.

Nevertheless, the story has been constructed as intricately as an ice crystal. The action is even segmented neatly into sections — The City, The Sea (I and II), The Ice — as compact and sculpted as blocks of frozen snow. The characters themselves are complex, as life is — none more so than Smilla — so their motives tease and confound the reader. And the technical subject-matter and terms for various types of snow and ice, mingled with intelligent human reflection not limited to Smilla, develop an intriguing pattern that shapes and deepens the narrative.

“What we discover in nature is not really a matter of what exists; what we find is determined by our ability to understand”

Should this wise and weighty observation be measured differently, perhaps, because it emanates from the novel’s criminal mastermind? Or does its profundity mean he, himself, should be reappraised?

To classify Smilla’s Sense of Snow as a ho-hum mystery/thriller is to overlook the areas of its greatest achievement. The measure of Høeg’s novel lies perhaps not in its plot or in the psyche of its heroine, but in the overall wisdom and understanding it disseminates.

In any case, readers either love or hate Smilla’s Sense of Snow. The Goodreads Community Reviews show it polarises opinion.“Smilla is, I think, my hands-down favourite fictional character,” says one. “Which makes it easy for me to keep returning to this book…beautiful and technical and never sentimental” (Carolina, Aug 05, 2007). Another baulks at the “frankly unbelievable heroine” and an “uninvolving plot which moves at the speed of an exhausted glacier” (Paul, Nov 23, 2012).

At 453 pages, it’s the sort of book you are tempted many times to put down in annoyance and frustration, yet you read on and suddenly discover some sparkling crystalline gem that makes you glad you persevered. An odd one, a challenge, but recommended.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg

 

Derek Hornsey,
Casual Library Officer SMSA