Do you ever feel like it’s taking you aaaages to finish a book, even though in reality it’s only been a few days? That’s me and Miss Smilla. It took me over a week, which isn’t a huge amount of time, but it really started to drag and I was left wondering whether it was the book or me that felt slow. I was reading and reading and reading…. but going nowhere. Or at least that’s how it felt.
It was probably me.
“Falling in love has been greatly overrated. Falling in love consists of 45 percent fear of not being accepted, 45 percent manic hope that this time the fear will be put to shame and a modest 10 percent frail awareness of the possibility of love. I don’t fall in love any more. Just like I don’t get the mumps.”
Smilla Jasperson is a native Greenlander living in Copenhagen. She’s a bit of a loner but somehow, over the years, she’s been befriended by young Isaiah, the neglected child of an alcoholic who lives in the same building. The novel opens with Isaiah’s death, which the police believe was an accident, but Smilla is plagued with questions. What was Isaiah doing up on the roof when he was so afraid of heights? And why do his tracks lead straight off the snowy rooftop, as if he’d simply walked over the edge? None of it makes sense to the grieving Smilla so she decides to investigate his death herself, using her understanding of ice and the way it behaves to lead her to the answers.
I really enjoyed the first half of this book. I wanted to know what happened to Isaiah and I found Smilla’s investigative techniques (which rely as much on bullying and spying as her “feeling for snow”) kind of intriguing. As a character she’s difficult to get a handle on: shrewd, obsessive, resentful about the hand life has dealt her. I don’t think I warmed to her (or any other character) particularly – it can be hard to like such a cold character – but I liked the idea of her. She’s weirdly fascinating. Occasionally, though, I found myself getting a bit bored of her smug jokes, her lack of tolerance towards other people, her over confidence. But again, maybe that’s just me.
The novel starts out with an investigation into the unexplained death of a child but it goes off in odd directions and accumulates a lot of baggage along the way: drug smuggling, Nazi collaboration, biological threats, meteorites….. It seemed like the plot had become bogged down in its own cleverness and I started to feel a little overwhelmed by all the detail. I often had to look back through the pages I’d already read to remind myself of details and names I’d forgotten. Who was Victor again? Where have I seen the word Nifleheim before? What does hiquak mean? On one occasion, towards the end, Smilla makes a knowing reference to a bicycle and I had to go back over a hundred pages to find the original brief reference to the said bicycle so I could understand her meaning. This probably says more about my inability to retain information but after a while I started to find these obscure references a little frustrating.
The big change for me came when Smilla went undercover on a shipping vessel heading to an unknown destination near her native Greenland. Until then I’d been quite enjoying the book but at this point I started to wonder if the plot was flagging. It occurred to me that this avalanche of detail was a little unfocused and obscured the death that was supposed to be at the heart of it. My curiosity started to wane and I just wanted it to finish so I could move on to something else. The ending was a relief because it answered some of my, and Smilla’s, questions but it wasn’t really enough to save the book.
There were, of course, some things that I really liked about this novel, the brooding atmosphere (it feels almost like a film noir) being one. I particularly enjoyed the way Høeg makes the coldness emanate from the pages. You can feel the ice, see it glinting on the rooftops, hear it crunch under your feet. This, I think, is what I will remember most about Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow.