Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow by Peter Hoeg

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Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow by Peter Hoeg

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Fans of crime fiction should take note that Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow is not a particularly successful detective story, despite its Silver Dagger award. What it is, though, is a lyrical, beautiful book full of moods and atmosphere.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: April 1996
Publisher: The Harvill Press
ISBN: 1860461670

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"Isaiah is lying with his legs tucked up under him, with his face in the snow and his hands round his head, as if he were shielding himself from the little spotlight shining on him, as if the snow were a window through which he has caught sight of something deep inside the earth."

But Isaiah hasn't caught sight of anything deep inside the earth. Isaiah won't be going on another childhood journey of exploration; nothing more will catch his eye and demand his hungry, inquisitive attention; nothing more will absorb him completely as children are absorbed completely by their latest discoveries. Finding out is something Isaiah won't do again, ever again. He is lying in a Copenhagen street, in the snow, and the place where he lies is surrounded already by the prurient paraphernalia of sudden and unexpected death: the spotlights, the striped tape, the Keep Clear signs, the photographers, the onlookers, the policemen, the man who found his body. And Smilla Jaspersen, who loved him. Isaiah fell from the warehouse roof where he was playing. Perhaps he took sudden fright. Perhaps he misjudged the edge. Perhaps even, he did catch sight of something deep inside the earth. But he never will again.

The death of a child moves us all. The death of a child is a wrong thing, it is a thing that should never be. Children are hope, they hold all the promise, all the optimism, all the potential that the world holds, it is all theirs, they are the future. We feel the loss of these things at the death of a child, we feel it as though it is much our loss as theirs. Smilla, who loved Isaiah, feels it too:

"A child who is born is something to seek out, something to search for, a star, a northern light, a column of energy in the universe. And a child who dies ? that's an abomination."

For Smilla it is especially hard, she suffers often from a sense of dislocation, from anomie, from a tiredness of life, and from past bitterness. Isaiah was the child who brought the surprise of love, and also a connection into her life, somehow he melted the sliver of ice in Smilla's heart and joined her to the world, at least partially. They had things in common and so there was a bond between them of something more than love. Both half-Inuit, North Greenlandic, both displaced and living unwillingly far from home in Copenhagen, both suffering from cultural dissociation and the colonialism and racism found in Denmark, both wanting to cling on to their mother tongue, to hold on to something of home, both failing to quite make it in the European world of precise science and teeming people, both feeling isolated, Smilla and Isaiah were bound by unspoken but mutual need.

But there is also more. Smilla, the ice princess, has a feeling for snow. Drawn to the roof, to Isaiah's last place, she sees that his footprints in the snow aren't those of a child playing, they are those of a child running, a child running from its worst fear, from terror, from the bogeyman. And clever, vain, lonely, tenacious, self-absorbed Smilla, who loved the child more than she loves her loneliness and self-absorption, cannot let his death rest until it is explained. It is the bargain she made unwittingly, when she made her connection with Isaiah. And so, with the death of a child, the scene is set. Uncovering political corruption, conspiracy, personal greed, the search for power and influence, stories of alcoholism and suicide, and Smilla follows Isaiah's trail through Copenhagen, through the people of its streets, through its rich and powerful men and women, through her own father and the painful relationship she has with him, through her memories of her Inuit mother and her mother's death, and through a ship as it makes its way through the Arctic ice, to Greenland, to home and to the answers she seeks.

Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow won a Silver Dagger award, given by the Crime Writers Association, which surprises me, for it is not a tightly constructed book, not a formulaic detective story or a psycho-political thriller slowly gathering pace and tension as small pieces of the answer are gradually revealed. It's not a Gorky Park, or even a straight whodunnit. Rather it is a book of moods and atmosphere that meanders slowly and thoughtfully along for a while, losing itself in Smilla's introspection, or in wonder at the beauty of the physical world, or in consideration of geometry and mathematics, or in anger at the displacement of indigenous peoples, and then remembers suddenly the death of a child and careers along very tensely for a while more before slowing again to wonder at the nature of love and love affairs. The pace of the plot is as uneven as the pace of a life and its thoughts is uneven, and because of this, and perhaps also because of the rapidity and final change of mood at its climax, I don't think Smilla is particularly successful detective story. What it is though, is a beautiful book. Despite the snow and the ice, despite the classical, cold, pure, mathematical fractals of the snowflakes, despite the dislocation of its central character, Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow is not cool. It is heady, dense, full of complex ideas expressed with lyricism and a marvellous beauty of thought. Some of the descriptions of the snow and ice simply lift themselves from the page and surround you:

"It was created in beauty. One October day the temperature drops thirty degrees in four hours, and the sea grows as motionless as a mirror. It's waiting to reflect a wonder of creation. The clouds and the sea now glide together in a curtain of heavy grey silk. The water grows viscous and tinged with pink, like a liqueur of wild berries. A blue fog of frost smoke detaches itself from the surface of the water and drifts across the mirror. Then the water solidifies. Out of the dark sea the cold now pulls up a rose garden, a white blanket of ice blossoms formed from salt and frozen drops of water."

Lovely. Oh, I was going to talk about so many more things; about Hoeg, a man, writing as a woman, about the wonderfully successful translation which allows the original meanings to shine like a beacon straight through it, even about the striking, memorable but odd and slightly clunky sex scene, but you know, I don't think I will; I'll leave those things for you to think about because above all this is Smilla's book: Smilla the vain woman who considers her clothes and appearance before she considers almost anything, Smilla the lonely woman who wants solitude more than a lover, but who falls in love and is afraid, Smilla the child who cannot bear its father, the woman who wants both to hold on to her heritage and also to leave it behind, Smilla the intellectual, the underachieving scientist, Smilla the indefatigable, rude, intolerant pursuer of truth, Smilla the woman who loved a child, Smilla the woman with a feeling for the snow and the ice that defines her very existence. Rueful, self-aware, isolated, dislocated, dogged, determined, beautiful Smilla. If you read this book for anything, read it for Smilla:

"And I, who am I? Am I the scientist, the observer? Am I the one who has been given the chance to get a glimpse of life from the outside? From a point of view made up of equal parts of loneliness and objectivity? Or am I only pathetic?"

She is not pathetic.

Fans of this kind of sensuous, moody writing might like the short stories in Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan.

Booklists.jpg Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow by Peter Hoeg is in the Top Ten Books Not Originally Written In English.

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Buy Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow by Peter Hoeg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow by Peter Hoeg at Amazon.com.


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jillinnrichs said:

I like this review although I have not yet read the book. It does sound like my kind of book. I don't like the usual crime thrillers - this book sounds a bit more moody and thematic. ta Jill