She thinks more highly of snow and ice than she does of love. She lives in a world of numbers, science and memories--a dark, exotic stranger in a strange land. And now Smilla Jaspersen is convinced she has uncovered a shattering crime. It happened in the Copenhagen snow. A six-year-old boy, a Greenlander like Smilla, fell to his death from the top of his apartment building. While the boy's body is still warm, the police pronounce his death an accident. But Smilla knows her young neighbor didn't fall from the roof on his own. Soon she is following a path of clues as clear to her as footsteps in the snow. For her dead neighbor, and for herself, she must embark on a harrowing journey of lies, revelation and violence that will take her back to the world of ice and snow from which she comes, where an explosive secret waits beneath the ice.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"I can't imagine that anything like the Christian image of hell actually exists. But lately I've been wondering about the ancient Greenlandic realm of the dead. If you consider all the unpleasantness you encounter while you're alive, it seems improbable that it would all come to an end simply because you're dead.