Sunday, January 27, 2013

1990s - miss smilla's feeling for snow (1992)

Finally, and belatedly, my 2012 reading challenge comes to an end, with Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg representing the 1990s. It's a book I've been meaning to read for ages, but have somehow never made it past the first page. But while on my beach holiday, accidentally without a book, I found a copy in a second hand bookshop and it seemed the perfect opportunity to finally read it and to finish off my Century of Books challenge at the same time.

In some ways this was an odd book to read on a summer holiday, after all the first sentence reads:
It is freezing, an extraordinary -18°C, and it's snowing, and in the language which is no longer mine, the snow is qanik - big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost. (Note: I lent this book to my sister when I finished it so I had to look this up online and I'm not 100% sure if it's the translation I read)
While I was lying around trying to escape the heat, which was also extraordinary, hitting over 40°C (over 104°F), and watching bushfire smoke in the sky and on the news every night. But in other ways it was a good choice, not only because it's nice to escape the weather sometimes with a book set in a very different climate, but also because it was a very enjoyable mystery/adventure story that kept me reading, and made me read through it very quickly. I can't imagine why I had never gotten past the first page before, it's quite fast paced. 

Starting off as an investigation into the death of a child by his neighbour, Smilla, a woman in her 30s who is something of a loner, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow ends up being something quite different, an adventure with a touch of sci-fi about it. It's set in Denmark, but Smilla herself is from Greenland, and the background to the story is the tension in her sense of identity as a Greenlander who was brought to Denmark to live by her Danish father after the death of her Inuit mother. More than that, it's also a story about the effects of colonisation. On another climate related note, it was interesting to read a book about colonisation in the context of extreme cold, I'm used to reading colonisation narratives in warm climates- that seems like a small thing but it did make it seem fresh and different. In reality there are a lot of cold-weather colonies, so it shouldn't seem so strange. Anyway, Smilla's background has given her an antipathy towards Denmark, but she also has a strong understanding of snow and ice (intuitive and academically honed), a love of Greenland and a dislike of getting close to other people. She's very resourceful and determined, managing to weather betrayal, a long stint at sea with a crew who are mostly trying to kill her and carrying on an investigation against the background of a sinister conspiracy. She's also pretty ruthless, which makes her an interesting heroine.

Being a thriller set in Scandinavia, in parts I was reminded of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (although this book has a lot less sexual violence!). It might just be that I'm not familiar with the broader thriller genre, but the background sense of corruption by a group with entrenched privilege was familiar, along the looming weight of history, including mentions of past links with Nazis. For me as a reader, this created a sense of menace and fascination. The sense of history shadowing the present was not only created through the mentions of past scientific expeditions and wartime activities, but also more personally in Smilla's memories of life in Greenland with her mother, and then as a child and teenager in Denmark.

There's quite a shift in the middle of the novel when Smilla boards a ship which seems to be bound for Greenland in search a a mysterious scientific find, with the detective story giving way to straight up adventure. As I mentioned before, it almost, but not quite, moves into science fiction territory, particularly when they reach their destination. This half of the book also felt less introspective and less political than the first half, though ultimately I think they tied together.

It's interesting how much the weather in this book affected the experience of reading it. It's a book that will make you feel cold, and it's a book in which snow and ice make a difference to events. So I guess it was the ideal book to cool down with on a hot day, and maybe a good book to read in the cold to appreciate the snowy weather? I wonder, is it more fun to read a book that resonates with your surroundings, or one that contrasts with them?


  1. I read this when it first came out and found the middle section interminable. I did finish it, but the problems I had are perhaps indicated by the fact that I've never read anything else by Høeg. This was one of the very few occasions when I thought the film was better than the original book. By the way, I see you're reading 'The Year of the Griffin'. Have you read the book that comes before it, 'The Dark Lord of Dernholm'?

    1. I haven't seen the film, but maybe I should try? I haven't read 'The Dark Lord of Dernholm', I didn't realise 'The Year of the Griffin' was a sequel when I took it out from the library, but I went ahead and read it anyway. Have you read it? Did you like it? I usually like anything by Diana Wynne Jones so I will probably check it out when I can.

  2. This sister of yours sounds fantastic, let's hear more about her! Also yes, it is the same translation :).