on April 2, 2000
I read a review of Smilla in the New York Times Book Review the year it was published and was completely intrigued by it. I found it on a clearance rack for around 2 dollars a few years later, and have been reading it ever since. It is one of the few books that I take wherever I travel. Smilla is not always a nice person; most of the time her past envelopes her present and makes her almost unlikeable. The other characters in the novel, the mechanic, her father, the coroner and the blind linguist are so well written that you begin to feel that you know them. I can't agree with the 2/3's assessment,because I find it gripping to the end, even though I have read it many times. The atmosphere of Copenhagen in winter, the language of snow and ice, and the mystery surrounding a young boy's death may not move ahead like an American mystery, but the slow unraveling of the plot is perfect for a novel set in a country where life is lived at a different pace than ours.
on January 12, 2004
I probably wouldn't have read this book if it had not been gifted to me at Christmas by my best friend - she had seen the film, and knowing how much I like to read, felt that it would be `right up my alley'...and once again, she was right in her judgment concerning my tastes. One of the quotes on the back cover (from The New Yorker) puts this novel `...in the league of Melville or Conrad' - while I'm not sure I would go quite that far, Høeg is a fine writer, and his talents for keeping the reader in suspense as he spins this tale are pretty impressive.
The central character, Smilla, is of mixed Greenlandic and Danish parentage - and the conflicts between those two cultures, one colonial, one native, are alive within her constantly. The dialectic that exists between these two forces - which has so often transformed and rent the fabric of human society - tears at her life. She is a strong-willed, intelligent woman who is not really sure what she wants or expects from life - she trusts her instincts, but not necessarily her heart. When she comes upon the body of her six-year-old neighbor Isaiah crumpled in the snow outside their apartment building, dead from a fall from the roof, she is immediately suspicious - and when the police almost instantly rule the death an accident, Smilla's initial doubts increase. They continue to do so almost exponentially as she begins to look into the case - and her investigation leads her into one dangerous situation after another.
The author balances the emotional with the sociological and the scientific elements nicely in this story - there are plenty of references to Smilla's inability to trust, and to love (and the reasons that lurk behind), background on the treatment of the Inuit people by the Danes (both in Greenland and in Denmark), and plenty of science as well. The author has done his homework. In the note about the author, it's mentioned that before turning to writing, he worked as a professional dancer, an actor, a sailor, a fencer and a mountaineer - and it's pretty evident that he pursued these activities with attention and zeal. You can see elements from several of them within this work.
The writing is intelligent, and flows very nicely - and Høeg is masterful in giving away just what he wants to give away as the story progresses. Fans of the literary thriller should give this novel a good, long look.
on October 25, 2001
Peter Hoeg proves that serious literature can be both entertaining and artful. On the surface, "Smilla's Sense of Snow" is genre fiction. But dig a little deeper, and there is a character study of great sensitivity, a setting with symbolic value and profound themes about loss. Unlike other densely-plotted thrillers, this book rewards re-reading
on August 25, 2010
I read all the reviews before writing my own because I was curious about the general consensus. People complained about the unsatisfactory ending, what they perceived as the author's intellectual showboating, as well as the narcissistic, cold-hearted selfishness of the main character. I understand the criticism leveled at the ending; I was looking for more resolution in terms of the main character's relationship to her rootless life, but ultimately I accepted that as part of the book, for better or for worse. On the other two counts I couldn't disagree more. What might be taken for pretentiousness is perhaps the author's expertise in many wide-ranging interests. And as for the main character--well, that was what drew me to this book and made it one of my all-time favorites. What I found interesting in the negative reviews was the almost angry vehemence with which readers built their case.
I first read this literary thriller when it was published in 1993. Smilla Jaspersen--half Greenlander, half Dane, an unconventional loner and brilliant scientist who struggles with her conflicted upbringing--is devastated when a young boy she has befriended mysteriously falls to his death from the roof of their apartment building. Unsatisfied that it was an accident, she follows a trail from Copenhagen to the bleak Arctic reaches to solve his murder. Since that time I've probably read it a half a dozen times--and not for the incantatory power of the prose. Don't get me wrong--the writing is terrific and the story is compelling, complex, and extraordinarily well-plotted--but what gripped me most about this book was the main character. And she still grips me.
Smilla is undoubtedly the first contemporary fictional female character who isn't a wife, mother, saint, or a whore. Imagine a grown-up cross between Nancy Drew and Pippi Longstocking--if they'd been kicked out of every school they ever attended, hitchhiked around the world, maybe did some low-level smuggling, and somewhere along the way managed to pick up a couple of graduate degrees. Smilla is clever, bold, smart, independent, funny, adventurous, slightly reckless, and feels no qualms about telling the men who get in her way to shove off. She's a boat-rocker, whistle-blower, a rule-breaker who thumbs her nose at authority and refuses to submit, like a well-behaved girl, to the ancillary role society would like her to play (e.g., wife, mother, saint, whore). Which, of course, drive the men whose power she challenges into a fury that makes them want to annihilate her. The irony is that she was created by a man.
But Smilla's rebellion does not come without intense self-scrutiny and the painful knowledge that she's a lone wolf; at one despairing point in the book she even calls herself a loser. She admits her freakishness, the fact that she cannot find deep connections with others. She usually refrains from getting involved with men because she's terrified of becoming too dependent, of losing herself. She's terrified of being vulnerable, of being loved, of being left. And yet despite all of her fears she plods forward. She laments her inability to make a permanent place for herself in the world, and yet that doesn't deter her from what she feels is her duty--to solve the death of a little boy who may be the one person to whom she had what came close to a true connection. But the greater, unspoken challenge is how to live in the world as a black sheep, particularly if you are a woman.
Perhaps the intense dislike some feel towards Smilla stems from her daring to challenge the established structure of society which, despite all the advancements women have made, still places men on top and women underneath. Men dislike her because they can't abide a woman who doesn't know her second place; women dislike her because it forces them to address the power they give away by seeking validation from men. Plus, the world does not show any love for those who tell the truth or root out corruption--they are, more often than not, eliminated in one way or other. And yet, without those who exposed secrets or took the unpopular stand, who took the heat and bucked convention, we'd still be toiling in some medieval gloom.
I also loved how Hoeg, in comparing Denmark to Greenland, underscores how the "progress" and "development" of the modern world have all but destroyed the integrity of ancient cultures, the beauty of the wilderness, and the deeply-ingrained rituals that lend meaning to life as well as binding people together. He weaves examples into the main plot as a kind of elegy to the world as it was before man's maniacal drive to improve it. Some improvements come to mind that did indeed improve the quality of life for mankind--fire, penicillin, and efficient farming methods--but there are so many more that can only make you weep.
Now, if only America would produce a heroine as bold, rebellious, and independent as Smilla Jaspersen--and her little sister, Lisbeth Salander.
on January 23, 2000
Authors are all too often struck by the dreaded 'Two-thirds syndrome' -- the problem of how to maintain the suspense of a good book until the very end. All too often, about two-thirds of the way into a novel, you can almost hear the question reverberating around an author's head: "How on earth am I going to end this?" One of the best examples of this must be Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, a mystery which also does a superlative job of charting the alienation of a Greenlander in Copenhagen. Just as you're gearing up for a fantastic conclusion, the author turns it into a cheap spy novel and ruins much of what he has achieved. I am still puzzled by how bad the ending of this book is when you consider what went before
on November 12, 2002
This is one of the most wonderful books I have ever read. Yes, Smilla is a strange woman, but perhaps no stranger than any other human being if they are truly honest with themselves. Smilla questions her own humanity and her capacity to love, but answers those doubts in her actions. It is this very honesty combined with her love of snow that makes this book so intriguing. The passages about her chidhood are quite poignant and you can really feel the little girl inside the disappointed adult remembering her mother and understand the effects of loss and cultural schizophrenia. What is most remarkable is that a man tapped so deeply into the emotions that I suspect many women feel about themselves, their childhood and their attempts at adult relationships. The ending was not so much a disappointment as a deferral, as though someone came into the room, told the writer he had to pack to leave on a UFO and had 5 minutes to write the ending. However, in his defense, I truly did not expect Smilla and the Mechanic to go home, get married and have a few kids. The period spent on the ship is more technical and not quite as emotionally intimate as the earlier chapters, and felt credibility was stretched a bit, but it was still a wonderful story.
Interestingly, the temperature outside while reading this book was about 60 degrees. Despite polarfleece, heavy socks and a down comforter, I still couldn't get warm. This is a book that stays in your thoughts long after you put it down.
on July 29, 2004
Smilla Jaspersen is half American and half Eskimo/Greenlander living in Denmark. She is 37, unmarried, and filled with a quiet caustic rage that overflows occasionally into determined action. She is also an expert, thanks to her Inuit mother, on the properties of snow and the significance of tracks left in snow.
Smilla is befriended by a pitiful child, Isiah, and the novel begins with the discovery of his body on the ground below a 7-story building, from the roof of which he apparently fell. But Smilla isn't so sure. For one thing, he was afraid of heights. For another, it appears that a needle biopsy of his leg muscle was taken after his death. But most of all, there are his tracks, only his, in the snow, but Smilla can see his panic, his running, his fear in the properties of those tracks.
Smilla is nothing if not determined, and she embarks on a quest to discover the truth behind the child's death, a quest that nearly costs her her own life.
Excellent, nail-biting suspense and powerful, literary-quality writing. Superb.
on April 10, 2004
Even those writing laudatory reviews, here, ding this truly superior work for having a psychologically, rather than literally, explosive conclusion. I can only suggest that Hoeg is an author for whom theme is ever unfolding through his characters, and it is the characters to whom we must look here.
The character of Smilla, the heroine of this novel, is developed with such nurturing and painstaking clarity and depth that she is breathtaking. She is so sharply defined that even the remarkable mystery in which we meet her becomes secondary. This book is a work of art of the highest order and it may be read for style alone.
But make no mistake, this is a compelling story, which is intellectually demanding of the reader.
"Smilla's Sense..." is a story of the strength and determination required by social outsiders in sussing out the underlying motivations of people involved in normative systems of control, and protecting themselves from those systems and the people maintaining them. This novel is about power and survival. Like all of Hoeg's other novels, especially "Borderliners", "Smilla" takes us on a journey describing characters traveling the real and emotional dialectic of moving away from the social center as they are drawn into a deeper understanding of its aims and of its archetypes. Smilla discovers not just facts, but the mythos underlying them.
"Smilla's Sense of Snow" is an ontology of the marginalized psyche interlaced within a remarkable story of the lengths to which a system can be bent towards the individual ambition for power and control.
I hate to make comparisons, but a good summer's serious reading list might include this novel with titles such as Morrison's "Song of Solomon", Eco's "Foucault's Pendelum" and DeLillo's "Libra".
on July 26, 2005
A unigue premise, an unusual heroine, and the author's back-ground combine for a great book. Learn more about Greenland and
more words for snow than you ever thought you needed. This book
also contains one of the all-time-greatest lines ever spoken by
a character. Enjoy.
on May 17, 2010
Before writing this review, I read all of the one-star reviews with great interest... at least now I can understand why some people hate this book. But for me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, from page one till the very end. I enjoyed every paragraph and every sentence. I have to agree though that some of those angry readers had a point: you can't just consume this book the way you would a regular two-dimensional genre thriller. In Smilla's Sense of Snow, Peter Hoeg expects his readers to pull their weight, too. You need to read this book slowly, properly, taking in every word and every idea. I read it a few pages a day because the book is so dense with ideas and imagery you can easily overdo on this artistic feast.
I agree with those reviewers on the book cover who called Smilla a female Hamlet. She is a remarkably complex and beautiful individual, a true heroine. Most importantly, she's a rare example of a true-to-life female character in literature and I'm amazed at Hoeg's insight into a woman's psyche. Next to her, such supposedly realistic literary heroines as Anna Karenina and Scarlett O'Hara are finally revealed for what they truly are: a couple of petty, materialistic, greedy little nincompoops, an insult to all real-life women out here.
The ending worked just fine for me although probably not for those who're used to expecting the authorial cavalry save the day (and the book) on the last page. The moment I put it down, I started rereading it. A true work of art and indisputable food for the soul.
If I had to find something wrong with it, I'd say that, IMHO, the conspiracy-theory plot wasn't really needed. It's the book's world that's important, its characters and their complex life stories... the murder mystery is secondary to it all. As if it was added as an afterthought, really. But it was tight and engaging -- an additional plus to this literary masterpiece.