Smila's Sense of Snow

by Peter Hoeg

Hardcover, 1993

Call number




Farrar Straus & Giroux (1993), Edition: First Edition


The original Scandinavian thriller One snowy day in Copenhagen, six-year-old Isaiah falls to his death from a city rooftop.The police pronounce it an accident. But Isaiah's neighbour, Smilla, an expert in the ways of snow and ice, suspects murder. She embarks on a dangerous quest to find the truth, following a path of clues as clear to her as footsteps in the snow.

User reviews

LibraryThing member TadAD
My reactions to this book need to be divided into two parts: the first two-thirds of the story and the last third. I would have given the first part 4½ stars; I would give the last part only 2. In the end, I would recommend reading this book in order to experience the former, but it could have been so much more.

The first part of the book is beautifully written—nominally a mystery, it felt more like a literary work. Within a couple of pages I was completely involved with the main character, Smilla Jaspersen: brilliant, lonely, isolated because she exists neither in the upper-crust Danish society of her father nor the Greenlander Inuit existence that was her mother’s. Setting her in Copenhagen, Høeg portrays the familiar story of problems caused with the Western "civilization" of native peoples, and the resulting alienation felt by the Greenlanders in the society that supposedly embraces them.

A mystery is used as a vehicle for the story. Examining the snow tracks of a boy who police believe fell accidentally off a roof, Smilla realizes the real story must be quite different and proceeds to pull at the loose ends to find out what happened. It is well-written and the author manages to build a good feeling of suspense, using the first-person narrative of Smilla’s thoughts and her stubborn refusal to be stopped by the roadblocks put in her way by all around her to tell his larger story.

The last third relocates to a ship heading to Greenland and then Greenland, itself. At this point, the book changes from an exceptionally well-written mystery to a plot treatment for a Hollywood summer blockbuster. It’s as if Clive Cussler stepped in and took over as the author. The writing switches from a literary focus on the characters to a thriller focus on the action and violence. It’s disconcerting and disappointing. It even treads the line of bizarre in explaining the real goals of the villains though, thankfully, it backs away at the last moment, leaving some explanations firmly set in ambiguity. By the last page, we are expecting a fireworks ending, but it fails to materialize as the book suddenly attempts a return to subtlety. Unfortunately, the reader is now firmly in thriller mode and this comes across as anticlimactic, weak and even more unsatisfying.

If the world worked the way I’d like, Mr. Høeg would throw away everything from page 255 onward and finish the story in the same way he started it: beautiful, atmospheric and rich. I’d recommend a try just to experience the first part of the novel; skim the last third if you must.
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LibraryThing member cestovatela
I found an equal number of things to love and hate about this book. Smilla herself is a fascinating character. Born in Greenland but raised in Denmark after her mother's death, Smilla is a perpetual outsider who, like many Greenlanders transplanted against their will, feels lonely and alienated by individualistic, materialistic modern societies. She copes by combining both worlds as best she can, taking on designer clothes and Euclidean geometry while never surrendering her knowledge of nature or comfort with solitude. The book's greatest strength is that it's not afraid to make Smilla a partially unsympathetic character. As much as we admire her intellect and originality, we can see that bitterness has made her an unfairly harsh judge of character who has no trouble committing occasional acts of cruelty.

The trouble is that this book isn't just a character study - it's also a mystery. Smilla's one human connection with the world is Isaiah, the neglected 6-year-old son of her alcoholic neighbor. When Isaiah, who is deeply afraid of heights, is mysteriously killed in a fall from a rooftop, Smilla takes on the case. The mystery unfolds with agonizing slowness, often through tracts of exposition that Hoeg tries -- and fails -- to disguise as dialogue. Soon Smilla's intriguing inner monologue is eclipsed by her investigations, which ultimately lead to an over-the-top conspiracy of medical researchers, drug lords and multi-national corporations.

Bottom line: Smilla is close to the top of my list of favorite fictional characters and Hoeg imparts a lot of interesting tidbits of Greenlandic culture. Read if you're really interested in those things and perhaps willing to skim the last 100 pages.
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LibraryThing member Pummzie
Think I'm a little late to the party with this book - apparently it was all the rage about a decade ago, (I've heard there's even a bad film of the book). I decided to read it after it was repeatedly recommended as a well-written thriller. I must confess that I have little time for thrillers so I was a little tentative, expecting to hate it. But it took less than a chapter for Hoeg's style and Smilla, the half Inuit/half Danish heroine of the piece, to reel me in. She was so clearly a woman written by a man - I can't imagine a woman writing some of these lines- but it didn't bother me at all. I was completely entranced by her and her intuitive skills and detached opinions. The intrigue as to why the boy had fallen from the roof to his death, which is the central conceit of the book - all of Smilla's increasingly mind-boggling entanglements spring from her desire to discover the truth behind the boy's fall - kept me with it for a little while. But, as the number of odd corporations, James Bondesque villians and a plethora of reluctant helpers starters to pile up - I started to get impatient and look for the end. By the end, even my affection for the heroine and her lovely musings wasn't enough to keep me engaged. I finished the last half off quickly mostly because I wanted it to be over. I really wanted it to have been worth it. Unfortunatly, the final revelations and compendium of coincidences were disappointing. BUT I won't forget Smilla. She was fantastic on a few hundred pages- I just wish that she hadn't gradually metamorphosed into the Inuit Lara Croft.… (more)
LibraryThing member AlisonY
I enjoyed this book, but felt it got a little slow in the middle at times.

The first 200 pages had me gripped - the descriptions of Denmark, of Greenland, of the winter landscapes, were a vivid and tense scene in which to set the story, and I enjoyed being transported into lands I know little of, told from the perspective of the protagonist who has lived in both. The complexities of Smilla's relationships with the mechanic and her father were intriguing, and up to that point it was a definite page turner, both in terms of plot and depth of characterisation.

Somewhere around the middle of the book it lost pace, however. The period on the boat went on for at least 75 pages too long, and I found myself caring little for what happened to the protagonist, or for finding out what had really happened to the boy, which was the whole point of the book. Smilla became less believable - originally characterised as a fairly ordinary lady who wanted to see justice done, she began to enter the realms of being some kind of fantasy wonder woman.

In all, it became disappointingly far fetched and Hollywood-esque - perhaps the author had his eye on the movie that was to come all along.
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LibraryThing member Ambrosia4
This book was really hard to read, but so so so rewarding to get through. I think it's difficulty in reading was based partly on the translation (not that it was bad) and the non-English style structure and prose. While quite a stunning literary achievement and a beautifully put together narrative, sometimes the jerky wordsmithing made me reread paragraphs or pages to figure out what was going on. This was a mooched book and several people had signed one of the end pages with similar sentiments: "Eve - fascinating mystery - not easy to read".

I really do recommend this one though, it was spectacular and not something an American or English author could write at all. I've read enough now to know that. I love Smilla and her courage, wit, strengths and weaknesses. While not someone you could generally meet on the street, she was utterly believable and I rooted for her, even when I couldn't comprehend her motivations and had no clue what was going on. For most of the book I couldn't figure out why she was so ravenously trying to solve this mystery, but it made sense in the end, her connection to Isaiah. The rest of the characters are equally well crafted and simplistic compared to the complexity of the heroine.

Again, highly highly recommended, especially for those fans of non-English literature. This is one of few Danish works I've read, but will hopefully not be the last.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Smilla Jaspersen is a 37-year-old single woman born in Greenland to an Inuit mother and Danish father. The book opens with the seemingly accidental death of a young boy she befriended in her Denmark apartment building. Suspicious circumstances surrounding Isaiah's death prompt her to investigate, and she stops at nothing to find the truth. Her quest unearths a 1991 expedition to Greenland involving Isaiah's father, and a nearly identical journey 25 years earlier involving some of the same characters. What all of this has to do with Isaiah is a complex web full of bad guys, science, and a bit of romance.

Smilla is a strong, independent female protagonist. Her knowledge of the science behind the expedition allows her to learn the truth about Isaiah, and then some. And yet she is also vulnerable, with deep emotional needs she has suppressed for years. She is a real person, not a superhero, making this complex mystery believable. The plot twists and turns, introducing good guys who turn out to be bad guys, and dead bodies turning up at the most surprising moments. About 3/4 of the way through I trusted no one; I wasn't even sure about Smilla herself. Smilla's Sense of Snow was a real page-turner that had me constantly looking over my shoulder and checking the back seat of my car. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member tapestry100
This was an amazing book. Part murder mystery, part political intrigue, and so much more; I think this would be a particularly hard book to categorize. I also think this will proudly sit on my top 5 list of books read this year.

At first, it was hard to get into the rhythm of the writing, but once I got used it and let it carry me along, I was completely swept into Smilla's life and was able to see things from her unique point of view. A very independent woman, strong and vulnerable at the same time, who has perhaps gotten in over her head but perseveres in her journey to discover the secret behind a friend's death.

Brilliantly written, haunting and detailed, once you have let yourself be absorbed into Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow, the story will not let you go until the very end, and even then will stay with you for some time.
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LibraryThing member Lizparker
a beautiful book, the writing just flows on the page and draws you along until its 4am and your husband is asking "are you ever coming to bed?". One of those books that make you sigh when it ends. Smilla Jasperson is a square peg refusing to fit in any hole. Half danish, half greenlandic she lives in an apartment block in copenhagen.When her neighbour, Isiah, a small greenlandic boy falls off the roof and dies, she uses her unique understanding of snow to uncover that he was chased off the roof. Determined to find out what happened to her only friend, she gets on the wrong side of the law and a large conglomerate to solve the mystery.… (more)
LibraryThing member brokenangelkisses
I was expecting this to be a fantastic thriller, given all the accompanying hype, and the first few chapters certainly created an intriguing situation and character. Smilla is a lonely woman with an uncomfortable relationship with her father and life. Memories also gradually reveal her relationship with a young neighbouring boy who has recently died by, apparently, falling off a roof. Smilla’s knowledge of snow and the boy leads her to believe that there is more to the death than is immediately obvious, and the opening chapters soon begin to bear this out as she meets a wall of hostility from various figures of authority. In this section, tension and intrigue are gradually built up, as is Smilla’s relationship with another neighbour who had befriended Isaiah.

The book is well written, in the sense that description is often vivid and details build up slowly. Many of the characters are interesting and it takes a while to get a real sense of who they are and what motivates them. In this sense, the novel works as a mystery.

However, personally, after the first 200 pages, I was battling to complete the story as the action moved from land to a boat and the focus shifted from Smilla’s relationships to espionage and violence. Knowing very little about boats and Danish/Greenlandic history certainly didn’t help, but I found that the most frustrating element was the lack of clarity in events. Miss Smilla never expresses what she is doing to the reader; you see her doing it and create your own ideas regarding her motives. To me, this made the character too opaque. The other characters seemed to slide between being extremely violent and patiently allowing Smilla to roam the ship freely. This didn’t seem believable, especially the way that the main character accepts a key betrayal without really reacting. She herself seems too cold a character to empathise with.

The action picked up again in the last few chapters as it finally seemed that the story was moving towards a resolution after the prolonged ‘hide-and-seek’ nature of events on the boat. Motives were revealed and some kind of denouement seemed imminent. I feel that, without wishing to spoil the ending, it is fair to warn people that the end of the novel is ambiguous and unlikely to be appreciated by those who (like me) appreciate having a story neatly wrapped up.

Overall, if I read this book again, I’d be tempted to miss out all the chapters which take place on the boat and just focus on Smilla’s relationships with others – in these chapters, sometimes unexpected dialogue allows key moments of humour and pathos. This is a book to borrow first, rather than buy, in case you become frustrated by the plot and slow pace.
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LibraryThing member llamkin
This is a great read to keep you turning pages. The heroine is a tough take no prisoners sort, who doggedly works out the puzzle of who killed the little boy next door. Her quest takes her from her home in Copenhagen to the Arctic. She encounters a variety of people who slowly help her unravel the tangled knot.
LibraryThing member NativeRoses
The word 'brilliant' gets thrown around quite a bit in certain circles and has become overused. But this is one of the few cases in which it applies.

The writing is such that the reader effortlessly becomes completely immersed in Smilla's unique worldview as she attempts to piece together why her young neighbor Joshua died.

While almost everything about the setting is foreign to a U.S. reader, the story is told with such skill that you feel as if Smilla is in your head and you are able to see the world through the eyes of a feisty, passionate outsider.

To read this book is to make your own world that much more brilliant and multi-faceted. One of my favorites.
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LibraryThing member Noisy
Extraordinary. Rich in detail. Haunting.

I don't often read modern novels, and I only picked this up because I had vague memories of good reviews, and because it said it was a crime story. At first I found the language very clunky, and I put this down to the translation from the Danish. However, after a while the style settled down, or I became adapted to it and started to appreciate it, and after that it flowed beautifully. Having now read up about the translation (I followed a link from the Wikipedia article on the book), I now recognise that the style is deliberate. In fact, I read the British version of the translation, which is disavowed by the original translator and published under a pseudonym. A juicy morsel in itself. This British version has been revised by the author himself, who 'corrected' some mistranslations; removed some of the dumbing down for the American market; and restructured some sentences to highlight particular points.

The forcefulness of the imagery is heightened by the sentence structure, and reinforces the strange atmosphere which portrays the other worldly attitude of Smilla, the heroine. Smilla grew up in Greenland, raised by her mother who was a native of the land, and consequently she was shaped by the snow and ice of her world, and by the characteristics of one of the key professions of her people - that of the hunter. Translated - as a teenager, and following the death of her mother - to Denmark and the care of her Danish father, Smilla seems to view the Danish people as aliens, but ones that she has extensively researched and learnt to manipulate. She lives a marginal existence, in circumstances that seem inconsistent, but is thrown into a mystery by the death of a boy who is yet another child of Greenland. The resolution of the mystery proved a bit hard to take, but the journey to get there was captivating. The depth of detail and evocation of sense of place and personage were spellbinding. I give thanks that some of the chapters were quite short, as they gave me a sufficient break to tear myself away to get some sleep and go to work.

This is not an easy book to accept from the first, and I found the ending weak. My recommendation is to persevere if you find the start hard to fathom, but this is not what I'd call a light read. I got tremendous satisfaction out of it: it is very much a matter of taste, though - as the range of reactions indicate. When you've finished it, it will be well worth your while to read the ten pages of notes on the translation written by Kirsten Malmkjær.
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LibraryThing member aliciamay
Smilla is part Inuit, but has lived in Denmark since she was a kid. She’s pushing forty is smart, single, childless, and doesn’t fit in. An odd friendship develops between Smilla and her six year old Inuit neighbor, Isaiah, but when he falls off a roof and dies, Smilla doesn’t believe it was an accident and sets about investigating. Smilla finds out that the police don’t want her poking around, which drives her to do just that. Her and her mechanic neighbor’s investigation take them to some random places around Copenhagen, meeting with some deliberately peculiar people and somehow leads to a Danish mining company that has been extracting most of Greenland’s mineral wealth and will be setting off on a mysterious mission to an uninhabitable island off the Greenland coast.

I guess I am a fickle reader. I always want the author to flush out some strong characters, but in this instance the attempt to do so was clumsy and annoying. I found the characters to be incomplete and therefore found their motivations and actions ambiguous and unclear. The book was also oddly paced and very disjointed for a mystery. I would be skimming along over a couple paragraphs about snow, and then realize that Smilla is trapped on a boat that someone has set on fire. I will say the book started out strong, but as Smilla gets more involved in the conspiracy surrounding Isaiah’s death the book gets bogged down in farfetched circumstances and convoluted plot points.
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LibraryThing member Storeetllr
It was okay, but not as wonderful as I'd expected after seeing some rave reviews. I had a hard time getting through the technical stuff (much of which was in the second half, when she was on the ship), and there was a LOT of that. Without the numbers and measurements and descriptions of the ship and the machinery, which I finally ended up skimming, the character study of Smilla was amazing, the bits about the culture class between Greenlanders and Danes very interesting, even the stuff about the different types of snow and ice were fascinating. As far as the mystery/thriller went, the core mystery was good (Isaiah's murder), but the peripheral mystery was very X-Files and unbelievable and the ending a bit of a letdown, and I had a hard time comprehending the actions/reactions of many of the other characters.… (more)
LibraryThing member donkeytiara
...after i finished reading this book i felt....well...intelligent! It wasn't an easy ready, but the unusual setting and unusual main character were fascinating. sometimes it's difficult for me to read a main female character written as a man, but in this case, the personality traits of smilla were well safe within the realm of men. The movie does not disappoint those who have read the book. fascinating.… (more)
LibraryThing member meghnamg
Didnt work for me. I expected Smilla's knowledge of snow and ice would blow me over. But like them, the book was also cold.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
I had misgivings about this book; that is, until I read it. I had previously encountered Hoeg through his short stories, collected in 'Tales of the Night'. But I hadn't enjoyed any of that work particularly much, and doubted that I would feel differently here.

However, a good and close friend of mine recommended 'Miss Smilla', and so it was impossible for me to refuse to read the book; and a good thing too, as it is one of the most original and scintillating novels I have read in a great while.

At its heart, 'Miss Smilla' is a detective story. Smilla, the eponymous hero, is not herself a detective; precisely what she does is not made perfectly clear. She is antisocial and her world is made up of fractured relationships, even down to her country: she is a Greenlander, but finds herself living an unwanted life in Denmark. What Smilla does know, if not about being a detective, then it is about everything to do with the snow and ice.

The Coen brothers once said of their masterful 'The Man Who Wasn't There,' that once they had decided that the plot concerned blackmail and a barber, the rest effectively wrote itself; perhaps that's true here. There is a death involving a child that Smilla had grown close to, and clues in the snow. The rest follows naturally. Smilla is always true to herself; of all the books I have read written in first person singular, this is the most consistent in narrative voice of any I have read in recent times.

The ending is obscure and difficult - I will say that much, to prepare readers as they approach it. One could argue that Hoeg, in setting up this mystery, did not very well know how to end it, and so does not; but within the universe this story creates for itself, it is not a bad ending, and I could not have thought of one better myself.
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LibraryThing member lahochstetler
Smilla Jeppersen, daughter of a Greenlandic mother and a Danish father, has never quite adjusted to life in Copenhagen. Raised in the skills of Arctic hunting and survival by her mother, Smilla spends her youth in North Greenland. At twelve she is moved to Copenhagen by her father, a wealthy and famous doctor. While Smilla has become a scientist, she has always longed for Greenland.

When a young neighbor dies from a fall off the apartment building's roof, Smilla knows that something is amiss. The boy is also a Greenlander. Smilla's investigations take her to sea and to the land of her youth. They uncover a conspiracy and secrets of great magnitude.

This is a complex novel with a deeply-hidden mystery. Smilla digs into events that show Danish willingness to exploit the resources of Greenland and Greenlanders. The fallen boy, Isaiah, becomes a symbol of the expendability of Greenlanders. Smilla is able to investigate the case because of her scientific training, but it will be the skills she learned in her youth that will be her salvation. Hoeg's world is a world filled with violence. Smilla's suspicion that she can't trust anyone is fulfilled. The faults of colonialism are laid bare.
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LibraryThing member Olivermagnus
The story follows Smilla Jaspersen, a 37-year-old Greenlander living in Copenhagen. Smilla is a loner by nature, but there is one person in her life she feels a connection to, her young neighbor, Isaiah. We get numerous glimpses into their close relationship through a series of flashbacks, for in the novel’s opening scene it is revealed that Isaiah has fallen off the snowy roof of their apartment building and is dead. The police view Isaiah’s death as an accident but Smilla, doesn't believe it. She notices the texture of his tread, noting specific details about the way his feet must have fled across the roof. Isaiah wasn’t playing......he was running from something. Her investigation into Isaiah’s death is met with resistance, leading her to conclude that she has stumbled on something much larger than the murder of a Greenlandic child.

I read this book a number of years ago when it first came out but I remember little about it. This time around I noticed the beautiful writing and the descriptions of the snow and ice. Smilla was unlikable in many ways, yet remained a fascinating character, especially her special relationship with snow. One of the best parts of the book was learning about the history and culture of Greenland. The author gave us a lot of detail exploring the problems of the colonization of Greenland, weaving social and historical context into his story. I started the novel knowing nothing at all about the relationship between Denmark and Greenland, so it was a fascinating introduction to an uneasy history. It's was a very enjoyable book and I'm glad I gave it a second chance.
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LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
A mixture of thriller and espionnage, this novel talks about Smilla's quest for truth. It is compelling by its research, scientific rationale and precision. There are clever twists. The plot is complex and the characters multidimensional. There is a robotic hardness however and a cold objectiveness that kept me from being fully engrossed. The end left me perplexed. It is worth reading: I never knew you could develop a passion for ice!… (more)
LibraryThing member Kristelh
I liked this book. Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg (with a dash through the o) is all things that makes a book a good book for me. Smilla is a woman who is have Inuit and Dane. She knows something isn't right when a little boy dies from a fall of a roof. She can't let it be. It is a mystery. I liked it because it was a mystery but I also liked that it had a lot of of stuff to learn about snow, ice, Greenland and Denmark. I like a book where it is both entertaining and also teaches you something. Yes, I think this is like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but wouldn't it be more appropriate to say that "The Girl "is like this book only this book is better. This is a debut novel by Hoeg, a Danish author. The protagonist is a strong female and she's middle aged. I think the male author did a wonderful job with her character. If you like suspense, I think this is a book worth picking up.… (more)
LibraryThing member fromthecomfychair
At times overloaded with tedious detail, at times luminous with images of snow and ice, and profound with statements about human beings, a real page turner for the last 200 pages, Smilla's Sense of Snow lured me all the way to Greenland, to the fateful island of Gela Alta and the mysterious rock. For the first couple 100 pages, I kept wondering why I didn't just put the book down. But I am glad I didn't. It proved its worth as a thriller, and there were some images and thoughts I actually highlighted. Worth the read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Topper
Smilla is an unemployed, half-Danish glaciologist caught between the two worlds of Greenland's eskimos and 20th century Denmark. When a young eskimo boy dies in Denmark (not a spoiler), she has nothing better to do and decides to investigate his death. This investigation exposes her to much danger, and through her adventures Smilla learns much about life, death, and the unyielding ice (or at least the reader does--Smilla appears to have known all along). Smilla is herself a wonderful character, not at all charming, but thoughtful and resourceful and passionate and insightful. Unfortunately, while the book itself is entertaining, the mood haunting, and the writing lyrical, the motivations of characters and their actions don't always seem to fit. For example, Smilla decides (minor spoiler) to take a job as a stewardess on a cargo ship, even though she knows the people on the ship are after her(?). She also, despite her own highly developed intuition, manages to be completely taken in by a man who she describes as "not a natural liar." Oh, and the ending is a bit over the top. So if while reading, you decide that Smilla must be an unreliable narrator, you're probably right--but perhaps in a more fundamental way than you're expecting.… (more)
LibraryThing member wendyrey
Detective / spy thriller/ social comentary based in Denmark. Prejeudice against those of Inuit descent? corrupt government systems? in Denmark?, always thought the Danes were more civilised than that, although what do I know. it is fiction but there must be some truth in there.
Gripping read
LibraryThing member miriamparker
I spent a lot of time on this one, but it was worth it (Ok, I've been reading it since Christmas...). It's an epic, really, with amazing character development that also has a sense of suspense to it while also managing to be literary AND taught me things about Greenlander/Danish relations. I'm not giving it 5 stars because it was a book that I could walk away from, but it also was always one that I came back to.… (more)
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