Smilla’s Sense of Snow

While reading Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg, I often found myself reflecting on what I would say about it. The review on the back is a series of contradictions: “eliptical yet direct, violent yet dreamy.”

Basically it begins when a small boy falls from a roof in Copenhagen. Nothing about the death seems suspicious to an outsider, but Smilla Jaspersen can’t help feel that a crime has been commited; for one thing, Isaiah was always scared of heights.

Smilla is certainly an intriguing character. Born in Greenland to an Inuit mother, she has spent much of an adult life as a scientist. She knows a lot about ice and snow, and though she understands people she doesn’t necessarily seek them out. Isaiah was one of the few she let get close to her, and she feels compelled to see that justice is done.

Her quest soon involves her in an intricate web spanning fifty years of intrigue involving autopsies, a Cryolite Corporation (it’s a mineral found in Greenland-I had to look it up), and a remote island surrounded by ice. It also involves her with the mechanic, who lives in the same apartment building as Smilla and Isaiah.

Though Smilla narrates the 450-page tale and gradually shares more insight into herself, I still didn’t get a sense of real character growth. She has an aloof confidence, and a violent determintation that spurs her onward, but it is very matter-of-fact, as if she came to terms with the world long ago. Those she encounters question her humanity. I know that I certainly would have given up long before she did. There is also surprising depth, like this thought:

“The bad thing about death is not that it changes the future. It’s that it leaves us alone with our memories.”

Overall, I thought that the book was far to complex. Hoeg will sometimes mention an event before describing it in detail, perhaps thinking that this build suspense. There are far too many nuances and threads to keep track of, so that even now I couldn’t quite tell you how they all connect. I was also very unsatisfied with the ending of the story. Finally, there was too much violence for my taste.

This was certainly a memorable read, and because of the length I felt invested in it, but I’m not sure I would have picked it on my own. My only real knowledge of Denmark is from Hamlet so I have no idea whether this style is a cultural norm or not. In fact, many times while reading I felt ashamed of my own ignorance. I did not know that Greenland was and still partially is under Danish control, nor did I make the connection that Inuits are in Greenland despite its proximity to North America.

I didn’t understand a lot of the scientific and technical topics that Smilla discussed, but I did enjoy her brief mentions of math. There’s a great passage comparing human maturation to the expansion of number systems, though it’s too long to share here.

This book was from the mystery section of the list for the Guardian challenge (I made myself pick from the ones I hadn’t heard of). Much of the book is more literary than crime-oriented, though. Since it was originally written in Danish I may also use it for the Lost in Translation challenge, but I have others in mind and am trying to minimize overlaps. It is on the 1001 Books list as well.

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Published in: on July 8, 2009 at 9:36 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Congratulations! You’ve won a prize for this review over at Biblio File for the Guardian Challenge! Email me your mailing info at kidsilkhaze at yahoo dot com so I can get it in the mail!

  2. […] also read Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg (Danish) and a book of Chekhov plays (Russian) for other challenges, as well as the […]

  3. […] Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg (mystery/crime) […]


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