Smilla’s Sense of Snow
January 3, 2010 § 1 Comment
I spent most of the holiday vacation zipping through Smilla’s Sense of Snow, a Danish thriller by Peter Hoeg. It was published over 15 years ago but its themes of political corruption, ethnic tension, and the dangers of scientific exploration still feel relevant. The novel follows Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, daughter of a deceased Greenlandic hunter and a power-hungry Danish physician, as she uncovers the mystery behind the death of a Greenlandic child in her building in Copenhagen.
Most mystery novels revolve around men. If a woman is present in the book, she is usually a sidekick, often characterized as exotic and sensual. By the end of the novel, when the murder is solved, they have sex. (Think every one of Dan Brown’s bestsellers.) These women are certainly appealing — male readers are supposed to like them because they’re fuckable and just smart enough (not too smart to be threatening or emasculating); female readers envy them because of their breezy confidence and obvious sex appeal. But these women are insubstantial. By the end of the novel the author assures us that they are mere sex objects.
Smilla, on the other hand, is a fascinating protagonist; on the book’s back cover, People describes her as a “spellbinding central female.” She is complex. She has a sexual relationship with a neighbor, but it does not overpower or overwhelm her. She effectively resists the cold-seductress/willing-sex-object dichotomy, confidently navigating the murky waters between dependence, self-sufficiency, passion, and control.
In the midst of her new relationship, she consciously strives to maintain her own identity, setting aside time to spend alone in her apartment. She’s also damn strong, braving violence and swimming naked through the freezing Copenhagen harbor.
Author Hoeg also takes on issues related to the Danish colonialization of Greenland, exemplified in Smilla’s ambiguous relationship with her father and memories of assimilating to Danish culture after being forced to leave Greenland as a child.
I’m not the biggest fan of mysteries, but I highly recommend Smilla’s Sense of Snow for its intricate plot, brave political implications, and of course, beautifully crafted protagonist.