Smilla Jasperson doesn’t belong in Copenhagen. She was born in Greenland and raised by her Inuit mother, from whom she learned everything about snow and ice. But after her mother’s death, her estranged Danish father brought her to Copenhagen, where as an adult she lives a solitary, callous, irascible existence, except for her friendship with a poor Inuit boy, Isaiah. When Isaiah falls off the roof to his death, even though she knows he is terrified of heights, she suspects foul play. The authorities quickly close the case, and she realizes someone with a lot of power doesn’t want the murder solved, so she sets out to do it on her own.
Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow presents the reader with a difficult protagonist in a difficult situation. She is already an outsider, a sensory-oriented woman in a verbal society. She is uncomfortable with language (her native tongue is leaving her, but she has never been quite comfortable with Danish), and her first person narration reflects that anxiety. In fact, the narration is so frustratingly incomplete that it feels almost antagonistic at times:
“He has a collection of aftershave lotions and eau de toilette that smell expensive and sweetly alcoholic: I open them and put a dab of the fragrance on a paper napkin, which I then roll into a ball and put in the pocket of my smock, to flush down the toilet later on. I’m looking for something specific, but I don’t find it. Or anything else of interest, either.” (page 268).
The reader is being kept in the dark deliberately, because Smilla won’t – or can’t – share.
I can see why some people give up on this book. It’s non-linear and cryptic, with important pieces of information tossed in as asides. The story hangs on some elaborate coincidences, and some giant leaps of logic move the reader through the “clues” to solve the mystery.
I liked the book, though. As someone who normally looks at snow only as a potential traffic hazard and school delayer, I found Smilla’s meticulous observations of ice absorbing. I wondered who Hoeg got to explain ice and snow to him in such painstaking detail. I also liked the author’s descriptions of the uneasy relationship between the government of Denmark and Greenland’s Inuit peoples, which are scattered throughout book. The social commentary on contemporary Danish society was fascinating.
I would recommend this book for those wanting another dose of Scandinavian Noir – Smilla’s contrary, outsider sensibility has something in common with Lisbeth Salander's. Also to those who like titles that explore the perspectives of different cultures. But that recommendation comes with a caveat: if your satisfaction with a mystery depends on a tidy resolution, this may not be the title for you.
So more peril from Scandinavia finishes my fifth book in the Scandianvian Reading Challenge – only one more to go! And it also counts for the RIP Challenge, so only one to go to complete Peril the First. Now for some grading – the sooner it’s done, the sooner I can get back to the books!