#NordicFINDS – Denmark Week – My Gateway Book

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg

Translated by F. David

Being published in English translation in 1993, this was the first Nordic novel I knowingly read, acquiring the paperback when it was published in 1994. In my thirties then, I was beginning to expand my reading, having moved on from the diet of SF&F that dominated my teens and twenties. I loved it then and hung on to my copy waiting for the right opportunity to re-read it, which has finally come around.

I know I made a note somewhere that I thought the novel went a bit thrillerish in its final act but couldn’t find it to see if I’d written any more. Arguably, I’d still agree with that assessment, but there is so much more to Miss Smilla. Let me tell you a little about it, before discussing the unique protagonist of its title.

Smilla Jaspersen is a fiercely single, 37-year-old half-Greenlander, half-Dane living in Copenhagen. When the six-year-old son of her neighbour falls to his death from their apartment block roof, Smilla knows it wasn’t a total accident. He fell getting away from someone up there. Despite having no love of children, Smilla had bonded with Isaiah, whose mother Juliane, another Greenlander, is often too drunk to look after him properly. Smilla realises that the police will declare it an accident and close the case – she can’t leave it at that – she saw the footsteps in the snowy roof and how he ran on it.

So Smilla investigates, and on finding that Isaiah’s father died in an ‘accident’ in Greenland, is drawn into something much larger, more insidious and greedy, more violent, with tentacles all around her. It will draw her back to her homeland, on a voyage in a specially equipped icebreaker up to the Arctic in Greenland and will put her in terrible danger, but if anyone can survive there, it’s Smilla who has that feeling for snow.

It was good to see Høeg’s use of some of the Inuit words for snow in Smilla’s narration. They are included in italics, with translations in the text, just as a Greenlander would explain to a Dane, or any other nationality. So we have aput for snow on the ground, qanik – falling snow, agiuppiniq – drifting snow, and so on. Whether there are actually fifty Eskimo words for snow is both disputed and still a matter for academic debate! (You can read a bit about that here.) It enlivens the text hugely and gives Smilla such great authenticity.

Miss Smilla – now there is one fiesty woman! I would have said she is unique in literature, but more recently she has a rival in Janina of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Both educated women, Smilla being a mathematician, ice expert and Arctic expedition guide, Janina an engineer and teacher–but Smilla has style, something Janina isn’t really bothered with, (Smilla’s trousers are lined with silk, she takes care of her skin too in the icy air). Both women have intensity and bloody-minded determination, but Smilla isn’t mad like Janina.

She came to Denmark with her Danish father after her mother died, but kept running away trying to get back to Greenland, much to Moritz’s despair. He is a moneyed surgeon/doctor to the rich now, and father and daughter keep each other at arms length, except when Smilla needs money for a project, or in this case, investigation. Then there is the ‘mechanic’, Føjl – but nearly always called the mechanic by Smilla. He lives in the same block, and after Isaiah’s death, the pair find solace in each other, and gradually Smilla begins to fall for him, something she tries very hard not to do.

Smilla is also brilliant at philosophical bons mots. I could quote any number of her pithy statements on life, the universe and everything, here are a few favourites.

I’m not perfect. I think more highly of snow and ice than of love. It’s easier for me to be interested in mathematics than to have affection for my fellow human beings.

There are people who head south this time of year. South to the heat. Personally, I’ve never been further than Køge, fifty kilometres south of Copenhagen. And don’t plan to go either, until the nuclear winder has cooled down the whole continent.

They say people drink a lot in Greenland. That is a totally absurd understatement. People drink a colossal amount. That’s why my relationship to alcohol is the way it is. Whenever I feel the urge for something stronger than herbal tea, I always remember what went on before the voluntary liquor rationing in Thule.

I was hoping to watch the film which stars Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne, but sadly it’s not available to stream and not easily available to buy, I’m trying to track down a DVD.

This is a book that I loved all over again. What a good start to my reading year and #NordicFINDS.

P.S. [edited to add] Translator ‘F. David’ is the pseudonym used by American translator Tina Nunally for some UK editions of her translations.

Source: Own old copy. Vintage paperback, 409 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

P.S. I got a copy of the film. It was very slow-burn in the early stages with lots of close-ups of Julia Ormond thinking about things; she captured Smilla’s character well I thought, Gabriel Byrne as the Mechanic is rather underused in comparison. The thriller ending is even more implausible than the book, but did tie up loose ends. I was surprised by all the British actors in smaller parts in the cast, as only Richard Harris as the baddie businessman gets star billing, and he’s Irish of course. Tom Wilkinson, Jim Broadbent, Vanessa Redgrave, Bob Peck, Peter Capaldi and David Hayman all feature and add gravitas! Would I reccomend it? Yes – for Ormond and the Brit cameos in particular, but go with the flow as it goes mad towards the end.

21 thoughts on “#NordicFINDS – Denmark Week – My Gateway Book

  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

    Loved the review, which brought back some memories! I read Smila a few years after you did, as a result of seeing the movie (see, I’ll even confess that I read a movie tie-in). Even though I generally avoided translated lit back then, I liked the book very much. As you noted, Smila’s a great protagonist and I found her Inuit-Danish background fascinating.
    As for the movie: I saw it so long ago I’d totally forgotten Gabriel Byrne was in the cast! How could I forget Gabriel Byrne??? I am immediately joining the hunt to find some way to watch it . . . .

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thank you. It’s such a good novel, and was even better re-read. It was the inspiration to make a month of Nordic reading. I do hope I manage to find the DVD.

  2. BJLanders says:

    Thanks for this review of a book that influenced me greatly. Superb writing, wonderful plot and above all the character of Smilla herself. I must now read it again.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Brian. I loved it all over again on this re-read. Beautifully written (and translated).

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    Oh, I’ve never fancied this for some reason, but it sounds excellent! I will definitely pick up the next copy I spot in a charity shop (there always seems to be one but of course they’ll have all gone now). I have started NordicFINDS in Norway – in fact in Svalbard – I can’t leave Woman in the Polar Night alone and I’m so glad you’ve given me the excuse to pick it off the TBR before its allotted time!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Ooh! I shall look forward to your review of that one Liz. I hope you manage to find a copy of Smilla – it is super.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Do you know, I must have read this very soon after it came out but can really remember very little about it, apart from that I loved it. I do remember Smilla being a very feisty one, though, which I liked. I wonder if I still have my copy….? 😄😄

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I remembered the latter ‘action’ sections on board ship better than the first two thirds or so, but the last few short chapters did surprise me again. I loved Smilla even more this time.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It really was the first really big Scandi bestseller in the UK when it was published. I still loved it on a re-read over 25yrs later.

  5. thecontentreader says:

    Thank you for an excellent review. I loved this book when I read it many, many years ago. I loved the strong character of Smilla and her sense of never giving up. It goes a little bit like a thriller in the end, but it is ok. Although one could say the writing/story before Smilla goes to Greenland is better. I also loved the film. Gabriel Byrne is a favourite, and Julia Ormond was very good as Smilla. It is available on HBOMAX. I don’t know whether the max part is only available in the Nordic countries, but check it out.

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