Danger: Thin Ice

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

by Peter Hoeg, translated by Tiina Nunnally
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 453 pp., $21.00

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by the young and already much acclaimed Danish novelist Peter Hoeg, is a mystery story with heavy scientific undertones. The chief character and narrator is a half-Eskimo, half-Danish woman of thirty-seven, living in Copenhagen, a semi-voluntary exile haunted by her Greenland heritage and her memories of that strange and magical land. She is single, childless, a moody misfit. Her Eskimo mother, whom she adored, died beneath the Greenland ice, and she does not get on with her father, a distinguished Danish medico. She is on the side of the Greenland Eskimos against the Danes who have colonized them.

A six-year-old Eskimo boy whom she knows falls off a roof and is killed. The police dismiss it as an accident, but Smilla thinks he was pushed. Her investigation takes her into confrontation with various high-up Danes and finally, in disguise, on to a villainously crewed ship bound with a mysterious cargo to Greenland. No shortage of plot here, or of attempts at characterization, though these are sometimes sketchy. It is a long book, 453 pages, and almost entirely written in the present tense. “Verlaine moves—with one hand he fumbles at his back.”

By far the best things in the book are the frequent evocations of Greenland, expressed through Smilla’s memories and reactions:

No one who falls into the water in Greenland comes up again. The sea is less than 39° F, and at that temperature all the processes of decomposition stop. That’s why fermentation of the stomach contents does not occur here….

But they found the remains of her kayak, which led them to conclude that it must have been a walrus. Walruses are unpredictable. They can be hypersensitive and shy. But if they come a little farther south, and if it’s autumn, when there are few fish, they can be transformed into one of the swiftest and most meticulous killers in the great ocean. With their tusks they can stave in the side of a ship made of ferrocement. I once saw hunters holding a cod up to a walrus that they had captured alive. The walrus puckered up his lips as for a kiss and then sucked the meat right off the bones of the fish.

And:

The most dangerous kind of avalanches are powder snow avalanches. They’re set off by extremely small energy disturbances, such as a loud noise. They have a very small mass, but they move at 125 miles per hour, and they leave behind them a deadly vacuum. There are people who have had their lungs sucked out of their bodies by powder snow avalanches.

Vivid passages such as these illuminate the book, and you long for the next one to turn up because they are so much more interesting than the story or the large cast that enacts it. Smilla herself comes across clearly—dogged, irritating, and foul-mouthed, putting everyone’s back up and well able to take care of herself in a tight …

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