Wednesday, February 04, 2009

'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow'

by Peter Høeg
Fiction, 1992 (Denmark), 1993 (English translation)
Translated from the Danish by "F. David"**
Harvill (Random House), trade pb, 404 p.
(US title: Smilla's Sense of Snow)
A small boy falls to his death from a city rooftop. Accident, say the police. Murder, says his resourceful friend Smilla, who, half-Greenlander, can read the marks left in the snow.
"It is freezing, an extraordinary -18°C, and it’s snowing, and in the language which is no longer mine, the snow is qanik – big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost."
This story wasn’t like any that I’d read before. Somehow the combination of the writing, the cold, winter setting, the detached character of Smilla, and the story itself conveyed a certain mood that I can’t really describe but that certainly kept me a little spell-bound, especially for the first half of the book. I really enjoyed how the story slowly unfolded, a piece here, another there. It worked really well to maintain the drama and kept me turning the pages.

I lost a little bit of that feeling of being mesmerized in the last half of the book during the long journey but even then there was action and suspense to keep the story moving. I never really knew what would happen next or how it would all turn out. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ending but now I think it is fitting and it's left me with quite a vivid, lasting image. I’m very curious to watch the film now to see how it compares and will have to try to get my hands on it.
Final verdict: An excellent winter read!

An amusing quote:
"The raspberry tart has a bottom layer of almond custard. It tastes of fruit, burnt almonds, and heavy cream. Combined with the surroundings, it is for me the quintessence of the middle and upper classes in Western civilization. The union of exquisitely sophisticated crowning achievements and a nervous, senselessly extravagant consumption."
And this one made me smile because I can so relate to it, being rather useless in both French and Japanese.
"I’ve had the privilege of learning foreign languages. Instead of merely speaking a watered-down form of my mother tongue, like most people, I’m also helpless in two or three other languages."
Something fun: The Smilla Cocktail

**A fascinating look at the differences between the UK and US translations, and the story behind the two versions: A Tale of "Two" Smillas.

My Rating: 4/5
(#5 for 2009, 1% Well-Read Challenge, Lost in Translation Challenge)

Also reviewed at:
Lynda's Book Blog
Have you read and reviewed this title? Let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. I have a copy of this book downstairs, I think... It's been a very long time since I read it, and I've refused to watch the movie because I loved the book so much. It's on my list to re-read, and your review just moved it up the list! I think I have the US translation, though... maybe I should see if I can get a copy of the UK translation.

  2. Great review, thank you. Somehow you managed to convey in two short paragraphs how I felt about the entire film. Eerie, detached, but spell-bound. I look forward to reading the book!

  3. I remember when this came out it was really popular, but then someone told me it wasn't that good. But I must maybe reconsider it one day.

  4. I know what you mean about the mood of the book. I haven't successfully described it yet either, but the novel certainly does have a mood. One of my strongest memories of the book is the wintery-ness (I'm making up words; see below about language; I relate!).

    I love the language quote you included!

  5. So, when you say "English translation" does that mean the UK English version, as opposed to American English or am I just overtired and in need of a drink?

    I think I'll read this one during the summer, if I ever get my mitts on it.

  6. I really must read this book. I love the sound of this book having a certain mood. That really makes me want to read it!

  7. Hi nat :)
    I am glad you liked still sticks somwhere in my mind.

    Will look up the difference of why two different titles

  8. kiirstin - Reading about the differences between the two versions made me glad it was the UK one that I read. I've heard good things about the movie so I'm quite curious to see it.

    mariel - I'm glad to hear the movie also portrayed that eerie, detached mood. I'm looking forward to seeing it at some point.

    valentina - You could always watch the film instead. But I am glad I read it, I really enjoyed it.

    Terri B. - LOL. I love your word: wintery-ness! It's definitely one of the most vivid parts of the book for me too. The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney that I read last year had a great sense of wintery-ness too! :P

    Nancy - Both the UK and US versions apparently came out in 1993. The short story is that the translator didn't like some of the modifications made to her translation by the UK publisher and the author, so she took her name off the UK one whereas the US version followed her original translation. It would be a good one to read in the summer when you're melting from the heat! :P

    Michelle - It did have a great mood, and other people seem to agree so I know it wasn't just me! I hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to read it.

    Sylvie - It ended up being a really interesting read! I found the story behind the two translations quite fascinating but then I'm interested in stuff like that.
    BTW, I think I know which part it was that you mentioned to me. The small part that was a little odd? You're right that the description was bizarre and it didn't really fit the story either. But it was just a couple of lines so I thought overall it didn't really affect the story.

  9. When my book group read this over a decade ago, we loved the book but hated the ending. It's the reason I now never recommend a book till I finish it. Yet the atmosphere lingered, and my husband has read our US translation again and again. I recently read a book by Swedish author Henning Mankell, and was reminded strongly of Smilly, though I kept wondering why, since they were set in different countries. Then I read an article on the rise of Scandinavian fiction in the UK, and it made more sense:

  10. Girl Detective - Thanks so much for the link to the Guardian article. I've read the first book in Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series and it's true there seems to be a certain atmosphere to Scandinavian books. I have The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and a few others I'm looking forward to reading.

  11. I am so glad you enjoyed this one, Nat. I also felt that the author captured so well the mood and setting of the novel. I had the same impression of the ending--at first not sure and then once I had time to think on it, it felt right somehow.

  12. Wendy - That overall mood is what's going to stay with me the most from this book I think. I've realized that one of the things that impresses me the most in books, along with beautiful prose, and well-defined characters, is when the author captures the setting so vividly.


Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I love hearing from you and I read every single one!

P.S. In an effort to eliminate spam, I moderate all comments, so there will most likely be a delay between when you submit the comment and when it appears on the post. Please let me know if you have any trouble leaving comments here, and you can also chat with me on Twitter, if you prefer. Happy Reading!