- Publisher: Harvill (April 4 1996)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1860461670
- ISBN-13: 978-1860461675
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.7 cm
- Shipping Weight: 281 g
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #521,505 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
This is a book that requires genuine commitment on the part of the reader. To condemn the temporal disjointedness or the one-sided characterisations is akin to taking Van Gogh to task over his utterly unrealistic stars.
The most common criticism is of the book's ending, and indeed if this were a routine holiday potboiler you would expect the ending to be different: More unexpected, more dramatic, more conclusive, more plausible. But then this isn't just another slasher epic, it's a finely tuned work of art in which everything (including the denouement and the reader's reactions to it) is designed to serve the author's underlying agenda.
Hoeg makes no secret of what he is doing: I don't have the exact words to hand, and I don't want to spoil it for anyone who has the fortune to have the book still to look forward to. But Smilla actually states in so many words that all the strange goings on at the end are like a metaphor for the confrontation between man (represented by the Inuit with their inituitive relationship with the world) and the decreasingly "real" world as it is mediated to us by our cherished machines.
Thus the frisson that every good chiller ends with, comes in this case not from what is happening to the characters (with whom perhaps we are not intended to have become heavily involved), but from unexpected revelations about our own predicament.
Trash fiction is an escape from real life, and is designed to usher us into a world that is more attractive or at least more comprehensible than the one in which we live. In contrast, art opens our eyes to the real world, the world to which we too easily become anaesthetised. Thus art is never comfortable, and never offers cheap thrills.
In "Smilla", the protagonists are ourselves. It's a painful but beautiful and intensely rewarding journey for those willing to take it.
The book is actually hard to describe. In plot terms: the heroine, a prickly loner, is drawn into a plot by a child's death. Sensing wrongdoing, she battles police, bureaucracy and sinister conspiracies to get to the truth, helped by a misfit band of characters, all while falling in love against her will with her main collaborator - or is he the enemy?
In the hands of most authors, this would just be another of the thousands of wannabe thrillers published each year. Peter Hoeg, with the setting, the character, and the originality of his writing, makes Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow something quite different.
The book is set in cold, cold climates, ranging from urban Copenhagen to the fjords & glaciers of Smilla's homeland of Greenland, to the seas off west Greenland that terrify even the hardest sailors - the 'Sea of Fog' and the 'Iceberg Cemetery'.
Smilla Jaspersen, of unusual parentage - her father a Danish medical specialist, her mother a Greenlandic traditional hunter - is a scientist, rationalist, mathematician and expert on snow and ice in all its forms. After her mother disappears on a hunting trip the child Smilla is taken to Denmark by her father - to a foreign land of boarding schools where no-one speaks her language, and people look down on the dark, uncouth Greenlanders.
As much as a thriller this is also a story of displacement and dispossession, of how irrevocably your homeland can shape you and remain in your heart. The well-meaning Danes colonise Greenland with the usual devastating effects on the native inhabitants - Smilla's own brother, the clan's supreme hunter, is reduced to sweeping docks and then suicide.
Smilla herself is educated and urbane enough to survive city life - she dresses elegantly, reads Euclid, understands bureaucracy. But the subversive misfit of her childhood is never far from the surface and she's a genuine rebel, in a way that the savvy, wisecracking heroines of US/UK stories somehow never are.
The language, while lyrically translated, is very unlike anything that would be written in native English, it's crammed indiscriminately with mundane details, philosphical musings, and a few wonderful insights. It's not for lightweight easy-reading fans - neither is the final revelation of the 'mystery' which, although implausibly stupid, somehow doesn't detract too much from the overall spell of the book. If you're bored with the standard murder mystery/thriller books, please - find and read this one.
Smilla is like a clever sister to Kinsey Milhone (from Sue Grafton's ABC series), gritty and always ready with a withering comment. You're right on side with her. But Smilla has greater depth.
The narrative voice is superb. The book also shows an impressive mastery of a range of interesting technical topics (in this respect it reminds me of Iain Banks), many of them related to snow and ice.
I felt that, occasionally, some of the links in the plot were not entirely clear, and I would probably have preferred a different ending. But these are minor comments, and I was delighted that I finally read this book.
By coincidence, the book I'm currently reading is called "The Worst Journey in the World". It deals with an antarctic expedition, and I think it might complement Smilla very well.