Sunday, April 11, 2010

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow
Peter Høeg

Denmark is a lovely country. And the police are particularly lovely. And surprising. They accompany the Royal Guard to Amalienborg Palace. They help lost ducklings cross the street. And when a little boy falls off a rooftop, first the uniformed police show up. And then the detectives. And finally the assistant district attorney for special economic crime sends his representative. How reassuring.

The little boy is Smilla's neighbor, her friend. She visits the rooftop, sees his tracks in the snow, and understands that his death was not an accident. So begins an investigation that requires all her courage, determination, and significant resources as she uncovers an old conspiracy and danger.

Smilla knows about snow. She knows about ice. She is, after all, the daughter of an Eskimo hunter from Northern Greenland, even if her wealthy anesthesiologist father forced her to come with him to Denmark for school. But her mother's blood runs true, and Smilla is a woman with the strength of skill, resourcefulness, and character built from creating survival in a harsh world. She knows more about life than she generally admits to nosy passers-by, and she's witty and resolute about it. As a rule I swim against the current. But on certain mornings, such as today, I have enough surplus energy to surrender. I love her.

I would read about Smilla sitting at home and drinking tea, she's just that fantastic. But Høeg lets the boy's death serve as the catalyst for a mysterious investigation. A lawyer turns up. A man who's been translating a tape for her is murdered. People start to follow her, threaten her, try to kill her. The downstairs neighbor befriends her, woos her, they fall in love. They break into old archives, track down people who might have connections, might know things, are chased by police and shadowy people who don't like what she knows. The plot grows in intrigue and danger until Smilla finds herself fighting for her life on the Artic seas. To which she says, oh dear, isn't this annoying. And keeps going. Even evil masterminds should know better than to mess with a determined Eskimo huntress on her own ice.

Throughout the tale, there is a lovely rich texture of being clearly aware of and yet not quite fitting into foreign culture. Both Smilla and the boy are natively Greenlanders, both brought against their will to Denmark for school as children. Displacement from home is not a theme of the book so much as it is the type of thread the story is woven from. There is one way to understand another culture. Living it. Move into it, ask to be tolerated as a guest, learn the language. At some point understanding may come. It will always be wordless. The moment you grasp what is foreign, you will lost the urge to explain it. To explain a phnomenon is to distance yourself from it. When I start talkig about Qaanaaq, to myself or to others, I again start to lose what has never been truly mine.

øeg is not merely philosophical; the writing glints with snark and wit and cynicism. Take this description of a neighbor's apartment: There are rose bushes in large porcelain pots, and they have red blossoms, and it looks as if someone waters them and talks to them and promises them that they will never be sent on holiday to my place, where, for some strange reason, the climate is bad for green plants.

So. I adore the main character, who is strong and resourceful and complex and mysterious and still quite flawed. The writing is fabulous; fluid, philosophical, witty, provocative. The story is intriguing, the action gripping. This is one of the best books I've read in the last three years.

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