I have just finished the most utterly different book I have ever read. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is by Peter Høeg.
He was a dancer, actor, fencer, sailor and mountaineer before he turned to writing. This is his second novel and when his first was published in German, Søren Schou of Information Magazine said that Høeg was “the foremost storyteller of his generation” and was hailed as “a modern Danish Jules Verne”.
The protagonist who tells the story in the first person is Smilla Jaspersen. Her mother was an Eskimo (Greenlandic Inuit) and her father a Danish socialite who made a fortune giving injections. There is something familiar in the story. The kind of unwritten racial tension that exists between the Greenlander and the Danish is not dissimilar to the ‘old days’ in South Africa, the Greenlandics being the underdogs. They differ from the more sophistic Copenhagen Danes in speech, manner and tradition, but a product of both nationalities Smilla accepts both cultures. It is this recognition that brings her close to Isaiah, the six-year old son of his alcoholic Greenlandic widowed mother.
The story begins in Copenhagen with Isaiah falling to his death from the building in which they both live. Smilla’s determination to find out what happened leads her on the trail that eventually takes her to an Arctic ice-cap off Greenland.
Together with Peter, a mechanic who had also befriended Isaiah, and with whom she later has an affair, she first challenges the police, but meeting with obstructions at every turn, investigates Isaiah’s background for a clue. Her discovery that Isaiah’s father had died on an expedition to northern Greenland’s Gela Alta, and that it had been the second expedition to that remote areas, adds fuel to her determination.
With a third expedition planned, Smilla contrives to be taken aboard the icebreaker as a stewardess. Highly suspicious of her, the rest of the crew are antagonistic, threaten her and make several attempts to kill her. This she finds is because in some way, each crew member owes something to the expedition’s leader, Tork Hviid.
Her only reluctant conspirator aboard is the captain’s drug- addicted young brother who she manipulates by using his own drugs. Eventually arriving at their destination, to her horror she finds that her erstwhile lover, Peter the mechanic, is part of the conspiracy.
It is the ‘where’ and ‘what for’ reasons for an arduous and highly dangerous search that keep you turning pages and not until the end is the complete mystery solved. The ‘where’ is solved fairly early on, but make as many guesses as you want, I doubt that you’ll come up with the ‘what for’.
It is Smilla’s sheer determination that enthrals the reader, as well as descriptions of the various kinds of snow and ice about which she is an expert. She is a pig-headed, ingenious and bloody-minded woman who, as we share a gender, makes me admire her courageous dealings with men. I reckon she is the kind of woman that men would hate to have around them. As the story was written by a man, this is in itself is amazing.
The book was made into a film, Smilla’s Sense of Snow in 1997, but having been enthralled by the written word, and vividly pictured the characters and scenery in my mind it’s unlikely that I’d enjoy it.