Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 26 Jun 2020

Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow by Peter Hoeg

When this book was released in 1993 it created quite a stir and for a while it was the book to read. Needless to say, perverse as ever, I didn’t. So it has taken twenty seven years and a pandemic to make me finally take it down from the shelf in search of a big story to get lost in.

I should start by saying it certainly delivers on the big story front but for a reviewer it presents plenty of problems because it’s a mystery thriller that is entirely predicated on twists, turns, revelations, and red herrings – none of which you’d want to know in advance.

Smilla Jesperson is a woman in her thirties, fearsomely independent and intelligent but deeply disaffected, anti-social and intent on living somewhere on the margins. Her opt-out lifestyle is financed by a father who is a famous Danish doctor and much of her disaffection comes from her mother’s side who was a Inuit Greenlander. It is the Greenlander heritage and the sense of their oppression by the Danish Europeans that drives much of Smilla’s disgruntlement but which also gives her a remarkable fellow-feeling for snow and ice.

As the book opens we discover that Smilla’s hard outer shell has been pierced and her emotions infiltrated by a very strange young boy, Isaiah, who is the child of a neighbour who is also a Greenlander struggling to make sense of her life in Copenhagen. Told in retrospect, we discover that Isaiah and Smilla have bonded at a deep level, so when the boy falls to his death from a snow-covered roof, she is determined to find out what happened.

In true detective novel fashion we soon get to know that Smilla’s instinct for some maleficence is not only right but is in fact the tip of an iceberg of mystery and corruption involving a large mining corporation.

At this point I’m going to say no more about the plot other than the fact that it's choc-full of the kind of twists and turns and betrayals that will delight the seasoned detective thriller fan.

However, I suspect that your enjoyment or not of this book will hinge very much on whether you take to the character of Smilla Jesperson and whether you’re able to believe in her. Creating such a big character to bestride your novel is always a double-sided coin that will divide readers. I personally started off strongly and found myself quite intrigued by the character but gradually fell very much out of love with her. The problem I think the author had here was one of believable motivation. If you go out on a limb and give a character a personality and back story that then makes it difficult to easily progress the story you want to tell, inconsistencies and cracks start to appear. Midway through the book Smilla was saying and doing things I simply couldn’t believe and which seemed entirely at odds with the character we are initially introduced to. There’s also the problem of keeping your main character alive in situations where their escape from certain death stretches the readers suspension of disbelief way past breaking point.

Then there is the nature of the mystery that gets revealed and is the motivation behind all the death and destruction. It has to be a pretty good one – the revelation has to be worth it all. I have to leave you to decide on that for yourselves but I’m happy to say that I thought this was a bit of a damp squib.

Finally, the politics. Whilst I have no problem with a novelist using a book like this to showcase the treatment of native, marginalised peoples and Denmark’s colonisation and appropriation of Greenland and Inuit land is a classic piece of imperialism that deserves to be highlighted. But I wonder whether the sort of cartoonish ‘all Greenlanders good, all Danes and Europeans bad’ characterisation we get here is the best that could be done for that cause. The way Hoeg makes the representatives of Danish big business no more believable than Monty Burns in the Simpsons seems to me to devalue the potential power of the central message.

So it’s all a bit of a curates egg really – good in parts is what I’d say. I think that if you’re a detective thriller devotee much of my carping won’t bother you a jot and you’ll romp through this. But, if like me, you’re not a natural fan of the genre then I think its going to come down to that single core question – how much do you like and believe in Smilla Jesperson?


Terry Potter

June 2020