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Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg , translated by F. David

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (Froken Smillas Fornemmelse for Sne) is published in the US as Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

Smilla is a young woman from Greenland living in Copenhagen. She’s an expert on snow and ice, not only because her mother was a hunter in north Greenland, an area that is harsh and sparsely inhabited even by Greenlandic standards, but because she has studied snow and ice, written a dozen published scientific papers on them and been on expeditions to the arctic, where any group would take her along as navigator ‘even if they had to carry her on their backs’.

Smilla owes much of her forceful and resilient character to her mother. In traditional Greenlandic society there were women who hunted like men: ‘because of the numerousness of women, by dint of death and need, and because of the natural acceptance in Greenland that each of the sexes contains the potential to become its opposite. As a rule, however, women have then had to dress like men, and they would have had to renounce any sort of family life. The collective could tolerate a change in sex, but not a constant transition to and fro. It was different with my mother. She laughed and gave birth to her children and gossiped about her friends and cleaned skins like a woman. But she shot and paddled a kayak and dragged meat home like a man.’

That is Smilla speaking: academic, wordy, cynical, funny and possessed of enormous insight.

Smilla’s father is Danish, a wealthy retired anaesthetist who ‘resembles a docker and discretely cultivates this look by letting his beard grow out now and then.’ He left Smilla’s mother, and Greenland, when she was three years old. He took Smilla into his care when her mother died in a hunting accident. Smilla went to boarding schools through the period of cultural assimilation, when Greenlanders were called North Danes and speaking Danish was the sign of being civilized. She ran away from school repeatedly but she somehow got the education.

So when is this book set? In the 1990s. Which is a little disconcerting, because although it’s a modern story there’s so much that has changed. Nobody then carried a miniature computer in their pocket. There was no Google. Research was going to a library.

The Danish colonial repentance that led to infrastructure, healthcare and education for the Inuit of Greenland was encased in contempt for their cultural autonomy and their rights as human beings. Their story mimics the painful stories of the native peoples of Canada, Australia and the USA. Smilla is a product of that time. The alcoholic mother who lives in a nearby apartment is another. One day Smilla finds this mother’s child sitting on the stairs.

‘Then I see that it’s a child, …

“Beat it, you little shit.” I say.

Isaiah looks up.

“Peerit,” he says. Beat it yourself.

…the boy on the stairs looks right at me with a gaze that cuts straight through to what he and I have in common.’

One day Isaiah falls to his death from the roof of a building next door. Smilla doesn’t believe it was entirely accidental, his footprints in the snow look like he was running from something, and Smilla is tenacious.

What follows is a crime story, an action-movie of a book. But it avoids the things that make action movies so tedious; the outrunning of explosions, the dodging of hails of bullets and the drawn out fights where people spring back up after getting the hell beaten out of them. Smilla knows about violence alright, she is expert at it, but it’s violence informed by that cutting intelligence of hers. ‘The misconception that violence always favours the physically strong has spread to a large segment of the population. It’s not correct. The results of a fight are a matter of speed in the first few metres.’

There are moments in this book when you’ll wonder just why something has been included, elements of two sex scenes come to mind, and moments that verge on the farcical, complete with people popping in and out of doors, but the overall mixture of lurking evil, social commentary and philosophical musing lifts it above and beyond the average murder mystery.

And you will learn a lot about snow and ice.

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