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.