Sometimes it’s hard to see clearly: ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ by Peter Høeg

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‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ begins with a description of a winter funeral:

‘It’s freezing, an extraordinary -18 °C, and it’s snowing, and in the language which is no longer mine, the snow is qanik – big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost.’

I was won over immediately.  Our narrator Smilla knows the name, composition and specific wonders of every imaginable manifestation of cold weather.  Even at the funeral the freezing environment is mentioned before any details of the mourners or person being buried.  It’s only in between the descriptions of the weather that unsettling facts about the death start to slip through.  Smilla is convinced there is something sinister behind her young neighbour’s fatal fall from the apartment roof.  In fact, after a brief introduction to her obsessions and isolation she started to remind me of some of my favourite unexpected detectives of recent fiction, most specifically, Christopher Boone from ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’ and Maud from ‘Elizabeth is Missing‘.  With Smilla’s strong memories of her Inuit childhood and her antipathy towards conventional Danish society, I was looking forward to something unexpected, unsettling and enthralling.

It is true that the novel went on to surprise me, but not in the way I’d been hoping.  The descriptions of the depressed Greenland economy and the impact of this on its traditional inhabitants were powerful and memorable.  It was frustrating therefore that Smilla ended up spending so much time with her super-wealthy Danish father, millionaire accomplices and a huge cast of far above-average-income characters.  Overall, it felt like gritty authenticity of the Greenlander narrative was continually interrupted by a world so glamorous it would make James Bond feel insecure.  Not that there’s anything wrong with over the top characters, props and settings in a murder mystery action thriller, just that I’d been building myself up for a very different type of book.

Overall, it was a disorienting reading experience; whenever the action paused and the narrative went back to Greenland, ice, snow, Inuit culture or wider themes of loneliness and isolation it rose towards the sublime.  I feel that in many ways it has been the perfect Danish entry into my winter of Nordic reading.  It is also true that my disappointments with the cartoonish nature of many of the characters and the opulence which overtook what began as a down-to-earth story, may have partly been a result of my expectations being raised so high by the opening.  Overall, a many-sided novel which may not always deliver but which, at its best, is quite breathtaking.

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19 Responses to Sometimes it’s hard to see clearly: ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ by Peter Høeg

  1. I’ve bought this recently but haven’t read it yet…

  2. Sarah says:

    I was blown away by ‘Miss Smilla’ when I read it, but I think your point about the jarring opulence is well made. It was one of those books I fell into so deeply I was prepared to overlook the negatives, but you’re right, it does veer into the James Bond territory at times. That said, I loved Smilla as a character – her unique perspective and the descriptions of weather were just wonderful!

    • I can completely see why it won over so many readers so completely, and it does focus on the character and obsessions of the narrator. The beginning is so strong that I suspect if I’d started it over a weekend and just powered through rather than taking my time over several days I’d have fallen into it (as you say) so completely the less wonderful elements would have passed me by …

  3. I looked at this novel this week too! I remember when it was first published it seemed universally adored. I liked it but also had reservations, mainly around plotting. Maybe it hasn’t stood the test of time so well?

    • I don’t know if it’s the test of time, I think the plot is much less impressive than the set up and descriptions lead you to expect but that its very understandable for this to be forgotten in the overall enthusiasm. I think when any popular book contains such strong writing, universal adoration is fairly appropriate (it can go to much worse books)

  4. I read this when it was first released – under the Canadian (North American?) title ‘Smilla’s Sense of Snow’ – and I was impressed, until the plot started to unravel into that so-banal ending. But the writing was delectable! “Many-sided” is a tactful way of describing the overall effect. And yes, the vast majority of the novel is very good indeed.

  5. What a coincidence – I’m currently reading this novel! I also love Smilla – her scientific curiosity combined with her torpid apathy make for a great complexity of character. I’d also agree that the passages dealing with Greenland, nature, and Smilla’s own dysfunctional life are the highlights of the novel. However, I disagree about the opulence aspects – to be fair I haven’t finished it yet, but so far it seems like she uses her father and his contacts to pursue the mystery she’s determined to solve, and she views the upper-class milieu she encounters with the same detached, anthropological viewpoint she does the rest of Danish/European society. She’s an outsider to every cross-section of Danish life, from the mechanic to the very wealthy. The only times she really seems at home and comfortable with other people is when she’s around other Greenlanders (mostly Isaiah, to a much lesser extent Juliane).

    • ‘Torpid apathy’ is such a fantastic description for Smilla! I do hope you’re continuing to love the novel so much and I also hope you continue to disagree with my point about the wealthy characters; the last thing I’d want is for my review to make you dislike or look for flaws in a book!
      For myself, I rather enjoyed the way Smilla reacted to the wealthy characters, but I did resent Høeg spending so much time on them. I felt as the novel progressed they got far more to say and do than the Greenlanders who were so interesting at the start. I also think you’re right that they serve to further the story, but this didn’t help me like their inclusion because I found the descriptions and musings on life so much more compelling than the plot.
      Really looking forward to your full review once you’ve finished!

  6. heavenali says:

    I read this so long ago ( probably when it was first in paperback) that I have no memory of it all. Your review makes me want to re-read it one day soon. Great review.

  7. Great review which has helped me to rediscover this book!

  8. Michael G. says:

    At last you mention a book that we have in our library! But this is one of the few books that I abandoned without finishing (Ruth loved it).

  9. Stefanie says:

    Oh, I read this a number of years ago when it was still newish for a book group. I really liked it thought I can’t remember much about it other than that anymore 🙂

    • That sounds like a common thread running through this discussion. Right now it all feels so fresh to me, but I think I’m going to have to test myself in a few years time to see if anything remains!

  10. Pingback: Navigating life: ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors | Shoshi's Book Blog

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