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July 5, 2016

Book Review || Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg

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'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow' is full of promises, and so are its rave reviews. We meet Smilla as she attends the funeral of her six-year-old neighbour, Isaiah, who fell from the roof of their apartment building in Copenhagen. We discover that Smilla, a Greenlander, has a unique sense of her world in relation to the dozens of types of snow that exist in the Inuit language. Using this sense and her own intuition, she comes to believe Isaiah's death was no accident and she uses her stubborn resourcefulness to uncover the truth.

We follow Smilla Jasperson through the most intricate story I've ever read. We are thrown from the present to the past to scientific explanations to philosophical musings to treaties against Western culture and colonialism to nostalgic longings for the past. And somehow it is still possible to follow the thread of the plot through all the distractions.

We eventually learn about all the different types of snow and how Smilla is unique in her talent for navigating through ice. We are, however, never party to these skills aside from her own musings into how she had done so in the past. When she is confronted with ice or snow or cold, she explains every detail about how it is created. Smilla's skills and knowledge are an excellent device to keep her grounded in her own culture - she at once rails against the Danish way of life and its destruction of her culture and depends on it for survival - but her constant return to her instincts is a way for her to affirm her heritage.

Høeg's innate sense of beauty is extant in the simplest of descriptions, from the 'eiderdown' of snow that lays over Isaiah's body to statements about love and life:
'For the first time I notice how burdened the room is with the past' [76]
In another review, it was stated that Høeg's sympathy for the Greenlander was questionable, and that he appeared to be more devoted to American culture as seen through the details of the plot, which include the likes of conspiracy murders, scientific discoveries, smuggling, and all-powerful corporations. However, I feel the empathy is most definitely there. Smilla is isolated, lonely, depressed. Her constant thoughts of the past, her musings about how disappointing Western culture is, about how her people and herself are judged according to Western standards, little details about how life was so different in her homeland, these details create a nostalgia for a simpler life. He bemoans the fact that Western culture does not experience things for itself but lives in the belief and faith we have in others who tell us things are so. One of my favourite phrases is:
'What we discover in nature is not really a matter of what exists; what we find is defined by our ability to understand.' [392]
'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow' is definitely a beautiful novel. But does it deliver on its promise? Well, if you're looking for an actual ending, a resolution to all the tension you feel from page to page, you'll be disappointed. While the mystery is solved, the ending is much like 'Inception', where we're left to resolve our own ending.

I would also like to add that Smilla is not a particularly likeable character. And this makes her endearing to me. Intelligent, ingenious, and multiskilled, she is sarcastic, frank, and sometimes downright mean. But this is a really refreshing from the piles of novels where the woman is stereotypical in practically every way. A bit like Kathy Reichs' series, there is nothing Smilla cannot do and is not willing to try to discover the truth.

A challenging read, this novel is intriguing and while you may have to put it down sometimes, you'll definitely want to finish it.

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