‘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.