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Book review: <i>Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow</i> by Peter Hoeg

the cover of the book


A rather lovely blue-green photograph of a body silhouetted in water, under some understated silver text. Nicer than the library's hardcover, which was a bland white thing with cartography and so forth.


From the roof of a Danish apartment block, a boy named Isaiah falls to his death. His mother was an alcoholic on welfare and the child spent most of his time with either Smilla, a brittle, icily intelligent woman from upstairs, or the Mechanic, a hulking, quiet, dyslexic maintenance man from downstairs. Smilla, daughter of an Eskimo huntress, decides that the boy's death was Not An Accident.

The good

Smilla is one of the most solid characters I've ever encountered. She is a compass needle, lethally sharp but fragile removed from her element, always pointing true yet never stable. Her personality crackles with intelligence, but also with self-knowledge, petulance, stubbornness, humanity, wit, and an inexorable strength second only to the glaciers which were her crib. She narrates, describes, and enacts the action in present tense, which adds to the immediacy of her plans (and non-plans) and her unstoppable effects on the people around her - the Mechanic is a towering, damaged, ex-special service diver, but against Smilla he is snow in the wind and allowed no illusions otherwise. Like all the best people, she is full of contrasts - probably the most complex is that between her powerfully rational 'masculine' intellect (the woman's idea of comfort reading is a nice thick Greek geometry textbook) and her genetically inherited sense that knowledge is the death of comprehension. In this sense she is a literal link between Greenland's still extant tribal peoples and the calculating, cultivated European modernity of Denmark.

The plot is as realistic as any containing a downed meteorite can be; the sciences of geometry, politics, physics, medicine, anatomy, and, of course, very, very cold temperatures are all included where relevant, interesting and necessary. Hoeg paces evenly and with small flourishes, quite often hopping ahead for surprise value then quickly filling us in. It intrigued me from the beginning, even though I'd already seen the inferior film, and if you warm to Smilla you'll read the rest. The Mechanic is another great character, although he has a minor part (yes ha ha), and Smilla's remembrances of the dead Isaiah paint him with such perfectly controlled strokes that he moves beyond our idea of a small boy until we see him through Smilla's eyes: a human animal of a quality whose death should not want for resolution. Hoeg filters the smallest encounter through Smilla's mind so consistently that it left a taste in my mouth. She is so ruthlessly honest that it comes full circle as a kind of tolerance - nobody can be heartless who sees through it all whether they want to or not, nor can solipsism co-exist with a total incapacity to deceive oneself, much as one might prefer the former alone.

Hoeg explores themes of loss and solitude yet also, somehow, the life these things can create. Smilla, once again, is at the core of it all, stuck between the city and the glacier, the organism and a point on a map. This is one of those books which I love so much that it's difficult to be objective about once its filtered through my head, but I can say with certainty that it is A- a cracking thriller written with a style so well-judged as to belie its translation (kudos to the translator, also), B- as cold, intelligent, beautiful and ultimately human as its main character, and C- more. Superb.

The bad

Dense, for a thriller, and unusual, for a crime book. Too cold for some, perhaps, and it could be argued that the plotting is a little too consistent; the last third in particular maintains a feel of impending climax right up until... you've turned a blank page. Ende. Realistic, perhaps. Satisfying, no. This was one moment (literally) where I felt that the film had the edge on the book - but that is of course the filmmaker's blessing over the writer, they can say two pages with one two-second shot.

The baddie is neither psychopathic nor a serial killer, and the crime at the film's core is as much an injustice in the titular character's psyche as a legal puzzle. If you don't mind a bunch o' realism and a lot of snow talk, then you owe it to yourself to try this. This is also one of the few books I feel completely competent recommending to a female audience, because Smilla is just that fucking cool.

What I learnt

A few new words for snow. Yes, there are many words for it and yes, a lot of them are in here.

A lot that I've forgotten. This is one of those fictions where there's nearly as much research as you're prepared to walk away carrying.

That the biggest drill platforms in Arctic seas are still designed to be removable in 12 hours because this is the most warning they get for icebergs. Like the heroine, an iceberg's course cannot be altered.

In short

Title: Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow
Author: Peter Hoeg
Publisher: Harvill Panther
ISBN: 1860461670
Year published: 2000
Pages: 416
Genre(s): Crime fiction, Thriller

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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