Thursday, December 15, 2011

Smilla's Sense of Snow / by Peter Hoeg

37-year-old Smilla Jasperson is a loner by choice. Though she'd rather not get into reasons why, it has to do with being the product of a Danish physician father and an Greenlandic Inuit mother, the cultural implications of which haven't exactly helped her thrive in a homogenous Denmark. After spending much of her childhood in her mother's home country surrounded by a frozen wasteland of snow and ice, Smilla moved with her father back to Copenhagen following her mother's death where making friends didn't come easily. Snow is actually something she's more comfortable with, having developed a comprehensive, almost intuitive knowledge about the different types of snow and its characteristics, even working sporadically in the field of cryopediology (study of snow and ice) as a consultant. When she returns home one day to find that a neighbor boy, Isaiah, has died after falling from the roof of their apartment building, the sense of security in Smilla's life and the truth about her very origins begin to unravel at a disturbing rate.

For one thing, she's sure the fall was no accident. After looking at the boy's footprints in the snow leading to the roof's edge, it's clear he didn't just get too close to the edge--he was afraid of heights for one thing--and fall off. For another, Isaiah, like Smilla, is an Inuit, a full-blooded Greenland native who moved with his mother to Denmark after his father was killed in a mysterious mining accident. Normally not one to reach out to people, Smilla had originally only befriended Isaiah because of his hideous domestic arrangement--his mother is a raging alcoholic who beats him--and undertook to tutor him after he'd inevitably fallen behind his schoolwork. The real tragedy now that he's dead is not knowing what (or who?) happened to him on the rooftop. The indentations in the snow from Isaiah's footprints clearly indicate running away from something, but who? It's tough going at first without any real leads or help until a clue in the form of a single cassette tape emerges, shedding light not only on Isaiah's furtive habits--he had a lot of hiding places--and fearful disposition, but also on a decades old conspiracy concerning Denmark's ties to Greenland and a startling conspiracy no one could have imagined. 

Danish crime writing sensation Peter Hoeg debuted this enthralling mystery back in 1992 when the Nordic crime fiction boom was just hitting the mainstream. He's sense written several others despite his extremely reclusive behavior--2006 novel The Quiet Girl was actually penned in 1996, remaining unpublished for over a decade. Speculation has it that this may be due to his extreme sensitivity to critical reviews, but it's largely unfounded. 'Smilla' is likely his best effort, a taught page-turner with an engrossing character who, incidentally, isn't all that dissimilar to Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander. Each of them certainly make a lot of enemies while trying their darndest to go it alone. Of course they can't help but win a lot of admirers and at least a few genuine friends in the process or sorting out their personal matters while battling conspiracy and corruption with their unique skill sets. Smilla's a little more mainstream than Salander--no tattoos or piercings--and isn't quite as, er, bohemian(?). But fans of the Millenium trilogy are almost certain to take a liking to it. (MYS HOEG)

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