"It is extremely cold, minus eighteen degrees Celsius, and it is snowing, and in the language that no longer is mine the snow is qanik, big, nearly weightless crystals that fall in piles and cover the ground in a layer of pulverized white frost."
Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, 1992)
is the book that made the Danish author Peter Høeg known to the world. It was made into a movie by Bille August in 1996, starring Julia Ormond as Smilla. It was also the first of his books to be translated into English.
Smilla Jaspersen is 37 years old, a mathematician, half Danish and half Greenlandic. She lives alone and doesn't really have any friends except for the 6-year-old Greenlandic boy Isaiah who lives in the same house. When Isaiah dies after falling from a roof, she gets suspicious and starts investigating his death. She has seen the tracks he left in the snow and doesn't believe it was an accident. Another resident of the house starts helping her, a mechanic who also was friends with Isaiah. The investigation becomes more and more dangerous and it is obvious that she won't get any help from the police.
Smilla as a main character in a thriller is a rather unique find. She's angry, bitter, stubborn, and relies on herself instead of expecting a man to save her. She is rather violent and doesn't give up a fight easily. Also, she knows too much mathematics to be able to qualify as a true heroine. She claims to live alone out of choice, and her relationships with nearly everyone else are strained and problematic. Smilla is living on the edge of society, not quite fitting in, but never a complete outcast.
The plot is rather convoluted and not completely plausible all the time, but what makes this book truly stand out is Høeg's language and his precise descriptions of people and places, Greenland and the wintry Copenhagen. He writes in first person view, present tense, and weaves flashbacks of Smilla's life in Denmark and Greenland in between the action. Høeg is questioning the role Denmark has played in Greenland over the years, and how the Danish society has treated the Greenlandic people that moved to Denmark.
All in all, this is still a book worth reading. Not for the murder story, but for the other questions Høeg raises, about what society demands of those that don't quite fit in. For his wonderfully precise language and rather refreshing narrative perspective. But fetch a blanket first, it's a cold place...
The quote at the top is from the very first line of the book but translated by me from the Swedish edition.