Saturday, September 25, 2010

More peril in Scandinavia: Smilla's Sense of Snow

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!


  1. Never heard of this book before! I am not sure if it sounds like my type of book, but you never know what can happen. :)

  2. I loved this book, when I read it years ago, much more than "The Girl Who..." trilogy. Although I've read the first, Dragon Tattoo, and own the other two, I'm not in any great rush to read them. This, however, was awesome in my opinion. I love how you said Smilla can't, or won't, tell you what's going on. It kept the story so suspenseful to me.

    By the way, I left you word on my blog that I'll send you Clementine, Friend of The Week if you'll just email me your mailing address (

    I'm glad you found me when you did! Who knew the side benefits of challenges? :)

  3. This is one of my favorite Scandinavian crime fiction novels. I read it years ago, then recently reread it and really enjoyed it. It's such a good book, and you've written a lovely review.

  4. Kailana: The style is apparent from the first page, so you'll know almost immediately if it's for you. It never hurts to look.

    Belleza: Thanks so much! Ellie will be so happy.

    Nancy: I have a feeling I might like it even better the second time, since it took me a while to get into the flow of Hoeg's style.

  5. I have to admit I started to watch the movie and never finished because I got dragged down by the "evil corporation" villain. This is not to say that there aren't evil corporations, just that I don't like to give them my spare time. :(

  6. I have to admit I prefer individual to collective baddies myself, Karen. I always feel like conspiracies would take more cooperation than most people seem capable of.

  7. Ever since I saw the movie I've been wanting to read the book. I know I'd love it.

  8. Beth F, if you liked the movie I'm sure you'd really enjoy the book. The movie definitely picked up on the isolated feel of the novel. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. This is one of my favorite books! I can keep rereading it and still love it. Your review is great. I hadn't thought of a comparison with Lisbeth Salander but I agree with you there.

    I don't like any of Peter Hoeg's other books, though. Did you read any others by him?

  10. Thanks so much, leeswammes! I have never read anything else by Hoeg, but it doesn't sound like you'd recommend them. Too bad, I did enjoy Smilla.

  11. I loved this book when I first read it more than a decade back. And I reread it countless times since then (but my poor paperback copy got eaten by termites four years ago). Loved it. While Hoeg's other books do not compare to the love I poured over this one, he does write good stories but that's my personal opinion. It's just that his other stories aren't exactly mysteries similar to this one that might put other people off.


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