Smilla’s Sense of Snow

The body of a 6-year-old boy named Isaiah is found lying in the snow next to the apartment building where he lives. The police find his footprints, and only his footprints, on the building’s roof, leading them to decide that he fell while playing on the roof. His neighbor Smilla Jaspersen, the narrator of Peter Høeg’s novel, suspects otherwise. She knows Isaiah was afraid of heights, and the tracks in the snow don’t look like the tracks a boy would make in play. Her attempts to find out the truth, with the help of a mechanic neighbor, lead her from her Copenhagen home to the Greenland ice where she grew up and into a conspiracies that goes back for generations.

Teresa: This book got off to a strong start. The Danish setting, with the Greenlandic culture in the background, was so interesting and completely new to me. Irascible and independent Smilla, with a foot in both worlds, was a great guide. But unfortunately that early promise wore off. What started out as a solid mystery and thriller became a haphazard collection of action sequences, and the little boy in the snow is just about forgotten until the very end.

Jenny: I couldn’t have said it better myself — this book started off so well, but the arc was very disappointing. I think what I enjoyed most about the book, from beginning to end, was the insight into Greenlandic and Danish culture and the relationship between the two. I loved the use of Inuit words and concepts, the Arctic exploration (I love that!) and Smilla’s attempts to make a place for herself between the two worlds: one based on survival and the other on essentially European standards of living.

But the plot eventually lost me. Just as you said, the original point of it all — Isaiah’s death — drops from sight, and the real reason behind the action is first unconvincingly hidden, and then when it’s revealed, pages from the end, it’s not compelling, to say the least. And Smilla started out as a great character, but about halfway through, I started to have quite serious issues with her.

Teresa: Ha! I wondered whether you’d like this more than me because of the Arctic exploration, but it seems even that didn’t save it for you.

I totally agree with you about Smilla falling apart as a character. I was bothered by the fact that this strong independent women was of course putting up a front the whole time and secretly longed for a big strong man to take care of her. Some women do put up fronts in that way, but there was initially no sign of it in Smilla. Never mind that she was at one moment utterly helpless and afraid of everything—the sea, closed spaces, people—and the next moment acting like an action hero. People are sometimes complex and even contradictory, but they can’t be everything at once.

Jenny: Yes! Smilla turned out to be completely defined by the men in her life — her father, her boyfriend, even Isaiah. Frankly, about halfway through I started to get strong intimations of what I like to call “Lisbeth Salander syndrome.” (Thanks to the Rejectionist for some crystallizing thoughts on this.) It’s where you have a skinny (always skinny, because then fragile), beautiful, damaged, extremely tough woman (this time, very interested in beautiful clothes; in Salander’s case, more with the tattoos) who will sleep with you. Yes, you. The more I saw this in Smilla, the more annoyed I got.

I also have to confess that I had a lot of trouble keeping track of what was going on in the book. Did you figure out how Smilla wound up on the ship? I even went back and re-read that part and didn’t quite catch it. Or what role her ultimate betrayer actually played in the expedition? It seemed as if the two halves of the novel were pretty loosely stitched together.

Teresa: I am so glad you mentioned that because I had the same problem, and when I’m that confused I always wonder if I’m the problem. There were a lot of times where I could follow the chain of events, but I couldn’t follow the logic behind them. I believe Smilla ended up on the ship because the captain hired her at the casino, and I think she went to the casino at the suggestion of some deus ex machina or other who called her up and told her to go there. Who called her? Why did she trust him? I don’t know. If we were told, I don’t remember, and I don’t care enough to figure it out. Why was her betrayer on the expedition? I don’t know. He needed to be there, so there he was. The events just felt so random that after a while I lost all motivation to keep track.

I was glad that at the end we did get an answer regarding Isaiah’s death, and it did make a certain amount of sense. I agree with you that the resolution wasn’t particularly compelling, but I was starting to despair of an answer. Oh, well. Definitely a disappointment. Too bad, because this could have been so good.

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19 Responses to Smilla’s Sense of Snow

  1. Steph says:

    Oh dear. I’ve expressed my reservations regarding Swedish crime fiction in the past (none of the stuff I’ve read has done much for me), and it doesn’t sound like this is going to change my tune. What’s worse is that I actually have a copy of this book as a friend recommended it! I tried to read it a while back but I found the beginning to be rather impenetrable. Now I’m doubly worried since both of you thought the start was the best part!

    • Teresa says:

      This was my first experience with Nordic crime fiction, but I share some of your reservations. I’m sure some of it is very good, but when they’re all marketed the same way, it’s hard to figure out what to try. I don’t know how far you got into it, but it took a chapter or two for me to get interested–and then I was very interested, until I wasn’t.

  2. gaskella says:

    I found the first half to be far superior to the descent into formulaic thriller ending by the time she got on the ship… however I read it years ago and it’s a bit hazy!

  3. Alex says:

    Like Gaskella, it’s all a bit hazytoo, but I remember that the best part were about Greenland and the trip to the Arctic. Completely forgot everything else about the plot, so I think my feelings at the time weren’t far from yours.

  4. cbjamess says:

    While everything you say about the second half of the book is true, I’ll still speak up on behave of Miss Smilla. I think I’ve read this one twice, maybe three times, probably just twice. I may have a soft spot because it’s one of the first Nordic crime books I ever read and I found it back before Nordic crime fiction became cool.

    For me, the initial setting, the initial mystery and the main character make the book worthwhile. It was a window on an unknown place when I first read it, though not it’s likely to a window on a time period.

    As for the confusion of the second half, I think this is a common element in crime fiction since Raymond Chandler’s time. Doesn’t bother me. I expect to find myself confused and re-reading good crime fiction. Though the stuff about the meteor is unfortunate. That part I cannot excuse.

    As for the Lizbeth Salander syndrome, I’m off to read the post you reference once I’m done here. I did not finish the first “Girl with…” book. When author’s start torturing their heroines to keep their readers entertained, I tend to stop reading. And I did suspect there was a lot of wish-fulfillment going on with Lizbeth Salander, too. There’s a couple of topics there that may deserve a much longer post someday.

    • Teresa says:

      Please, defend away! I know a lot of people love this book, so I was hoping to hear from one of its fans.

      As far as the confusion goes, I think you’re right that a lot of crime fiction is like this. Sometimes it bothers me, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll go along for a confusing ride if a book has interesting enough characters or a great atmosphere. I just felt like both of those qualities fell flat in the second half, so the confusion added to my frustration. Also, I think my tendency to get frustrated with really convoluted plots might be why I often prefer psychological crime novels to whodunits.

      Smilla’s character disappointed me mostly because I was really jazzed to find such an irascible prickly woman in a leading role, and I was annoyed at the turn the character took. (Not having read the Steig Larsson books, I can’t speak to the Lizbeth Salandar comparison, although I do know that the independent woman losing herself to a man for no apparent sensible reason is a common and annoying trope.) On the whole, the character ended up feeling like a fantasy object, rather than a real woman.

  5. Christy says:

    Was this made into a movie? The alliterative title has stuck with me, but from seeing on Netflix, or something. I haven’t read any Scandinavian crime fiction I don’t think. I’m so out of it.

    • Teresa says:

      It was made into a movie back in the 90s, with Juliette Binoche as Smilla, I think.

    • CAROL NAVEIRA says:

      Julia Ormond portrayed Smilla. While I have not yet read the novel, I first saw the movie (which was released in 1997) a few years ago and then again about 3 months ago. I recommend it, even with the absurd plot twist.

  6. Kayla says:

    I started this book a while back because I was interested in the Greenland setting and wanted to give crime fiction a try. But once it started getting too action-oriented, I also found myself getting confused as to what was going on and I stopped reading it a little over half way through.

    I had always intended to go back and finish it sometime, figuring that my reason for setting it down had more to do with the fact that I didn’t have the time to really concentrate on it as I should and I needed to wait until I could really devote a good week to reading it. Now, after reading your review, I’m thinking why should I bother? Especially seeing as that Smilla changes from an independent woman to a damsel-in-distress. I know that would really frustrate me.

    • Teresa says:

      If the switch to a more action-oriented style gave you problems, it might not be worth going back to. I’m not sorry I finished, because I did want to know what happened, but I think even many of the novel’s fans say that the last half is the weakest.

      I wouldn’t say Smilla quite turns into a damsel in distress; she’s also part action hero, capable of rescuing herself of needed. What bothered me was that she loses a lot of her independent streak, which appealed to me so much.

  7. Haven’t read this, but I really loved the film. Not sure if they’re at all similar.

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t seen the film, so I wouldn’t know. I think I read somewhere that the plot was simplified for the film, which could only help. And it does have a good cast.

  8. amymckie says:

    Interesting review. I remember liking this so must have skimmed over some of the more lose parts. Not reading much mystery type books myself I usually just accept that there will be parts that seem unbelievable I think. heh.

    • amymckie says:

      Also, can I just say – THANK YOU for that link to The Rejectionist’s piece. It’s awesome.

    • Teresa says:

      I can accept a certain amount of unbelievability, sometimes a lot, actually. But the shift from a story grounded in reality to an action/adventure plot bothered me. I think if it had been more outrageous throughout, I might have accepted it as an over-the-top novel and gone along with it.

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