Book Review by Steve Solomon

Smilla's Sense of Snow

by Peter Høeg

Translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally

Delta Fiction, 469 pages. Original title: Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne © 1992 Peter Høeg and Munksgaard/Rosinante, Copenhagen.
Translation © 1993 Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF DENMARK, and Smilla Jaspersen knows it. Six-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, a neighbor and friend of Smilla's, has fallen to his death in an attempt to jump from the roof of one building to another. Only Isaiah's footprints were found on the snowy rooftop, so the police consider the case closed, a tragic accident. But Smilla is unconvinced, because she knows things the police do not. She knows that little Isaiah suffered from an intense fear of heights. And she knows that there is something wrong   about the footprints on the roof. The police do not understand, of course, because they lack Smilla's sense of snow.

Smilla lives in Copenhagen, where her Danish father, an ultra-wealthy physician, practices medicine, but her early childhood was spent in Greenland, hunting with her Inuit mother. Smilla understands snow and ice in a way that only someone raised in the Arctic can. Soon her sense of snow and her bond with the dead child--to whom she was in many ways a better parent than his biological mother, an alcoholic widow living on public assistance--move her to launch her own private investigation. She is assisted by Peter Føjl, another neighbor, who served as sort of a surrogate father for Isaiah. Smilla gradually realizes that the suspicious death of one Greenlandic child is only the tip of an iceberg of violence, conspiracy, and international criminality involving some of Denmark's wealthiest and most powerful citizens. When police harassment fails to dissuade her, Smilla becomes the target of a series of harrowing attempts on her life. Armed only with her wits, her courage, and her two special gifts--her intimate understanding of snow and ice and her unerring sense of direction--Smilla ventures into the very heart of her enemies' stronghold to thwart their schemes and secure justice for little Isaiah.

Smilla's Sense of Snow   is a remarkable piece of writing, especially given that it is Høeg's first novel. It is an intricately plotted, suspenseful mystery, but it is far more than a mere whodunit. This novel is also a vehicle for the exploration of some of life's most basic questions: love, intimacy, and the possibilty of human happiness. Smilla's Sense of Snow   is written in a distinctive prose style and graced with an extrordinary cast of well-realized, memorable characters.

The most memorable character is Smilla Jaspersen herself. She is a complex human being whose personality slowly comes into focus as her many contradictory traits are resolved. And the contradictions are legion: Smilla lives in a low-rent public housing development, yet dresses in elegant, luxurious clothing. She seems emotionally tough and self-sufficient, but is actually vulnerable, and terrified of that vulnerability. Her beauty and her petite frame make her look dainty, yet she is almost superhumanly tough and is capable of surprising (and surprisingly effective) violence against stronger opponents. She considers herself more Inuit than Dane, yet she repeatedly refers to herself as "Smilla, the fake Greenlander." In short, Smilla is the personification of the ambivalent, problematic relationship between Denmark and Greenland.

The danger in making characters symbolic is that they may not be credible as human beings, and that danger is palpable here. Sometimes the novel creaks a bit under its heavy symbolic load. One of the least believable aspects of the story is the supposedly overpowering love between Smilla's parents: Dr. Jørgen Moritz Jaspersen is a vain, self-centered, urban Dane, a wealthy doctor catering to wealthy patients. His obsessions are his money and his golf game. He is now living with Benja, a beautiful, childish ballerina almost fifty years his junior. The late Ane Qaavigaaq was an Inuit outdoorswoman with forearms "broad and hard as a paddle." She smoked a pipe made of old shell casings and ate the ashes. She could hunt as well as any man and refused to move to any permanent settlement. Høeg's symbolic purpose demanded that Moritz represent Denmark's vices and Ane, Greenland's virtues. Individually, both Moritz and Ane are believable characters, but they do not make a terribly believable couple. They are simply not each others' type. Fortunately, Høeg manages to make their short, implausible marriage surprisingly plausible. Once their union is established as something credible, Smilla's complex, troubled character follows from it logically.

The supporting characters are well realized. Even some of the minor players, such as a policeman Smilla nicknames "the Toenail," are given a spark of individuality. Characters with larger roles to play have extensively fleshed-out personalities complete with idiosyncracies. Unlike some authors, whose concept of originality seems to consist of peopling their novels with menageries of implausibly eccentric characters, Høeg does not indulge in quirkiness for its own sake. His minor characters are believable people.

Høeg's prose style (in the English translation by Tiina Nunnally) is difficult, but ultimately rewarding. The story is told mostly in the present tense, but Smilla uses frequent flashbacks and asides to explain or comment on what is happening at the moment. Sometimes the transitions between the two modes of storytelling are so abrupt as to be momentarily confusing, but the technique is usually effective in creating a sense of immediacy. Another difficulty concerns Smilla's distinctive way of expressing herself: she prefers a short sentence augmented by a number of sentence fragments (freestanding prepositional phrases or relative clauses, for example) to one long sentence. This staccato, choppy style is well suited to Smilla's hard-edged, no-nonsense character. However, because Smilla is both the main character and the narrator, we are treated to a great deal of this style, and it eventually grows tiresome. Worse still, although Høeg tries to establish distinctive voices for his other characters, most of them temporarily slip into "Smilla-speak" sooner or later. Unless this fragmented style is typical of modern spoken Danish, it seems unlikely that all the characters would use it. However, these difficulties are worth working through because Høeg's prose also delivers a number of splendid word pictures. My favorites are "the sensual crackle of money changing hands" and Smilla's experience of happiness coming over her, "not like something that belongs to me, but like a wheel of fire rolling through the room and the world."

The plot is quite complex, sometimes to the point of being bewildering. Nothing like Smilla's Sense of Snow   is ever likely to turn up on an episode of "Murder She Wrote" or "Matlock"; trying to deal with this much complexity in a one-hour format would have the viewers' heads--and Jessica's and Ben's as well--spinning like tops. (Høeg has included maps of Greenland and the Copenhagen wharf district to help readers follow the action in those two locales. I wish he had thought to add a schematic of the Kronos   as well, as much of the most crucial action takes place aboard this vessel. Unlike Høeg, I was never a sailor, and I sometimes got lost trying to follow the characters' movements aboard the ship.) Høeg's plot is like his prose: difficult, but well worth the effort of working through. Despite a few apparent loose ends that I was never quite able to tie up (How exactly does Smilla discover the tonnage of the all-important ship? And how will the criminal mastermind achieve his goals of wealth and world fame without confessing to multiple felonies?), Smilla's Sense of Snow   is ultimately much more satisfying than any pat television mystery. In the hands of the right director, it might make an excellent film, perhaps along the lines of the challenging thriller The Usual Suspects.

I give Smilla's Sense of Snow   a very high recommendation. It would be an exceptional book even if it weren't Høeg's first novel. I look forward to the maturing of his voice over the coming years.

Edited December 11, 1996 / Updated December 12, 1996

Copyright ©1996 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
Please send comments to

Back to Review Index

Back to GrammarMan's Home Page