Peter Høeg offers us a mystery for the unravelling, but it is a tangle so tightly woven with clues and foreshadowings, with possibilities, with red herrings and tangents that it becomes a bind difficult to extricate the answers from. Høeg’s writing doesn’t so much as lose its way as never really finding a way in the first place. It slips and slides for over four hundred pages, never fully being anchored on the land of Copenhagen, in the seas of the North Atlantic, or on the ice west of Greenland. It becomes an opaque slush: intricately convoluted, intermittently incomprehensible, and with stultifying plotting.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (The Harvill Press, 1996, translated from the original Danish by F. David; originally published as Frøken Smillas Fornemmelse for Sne, Munksgaard/Rosinante, Copenhagen, 1992) is, in some sense, mis-titled. The eponymous Smilla is portrayed as an expert in ice formations. She suspects foul play in the death of a young child, who has fallen from a roof, by way of the marks in the snow, and from this the mystery begins to unwind, albeit extremely slowly; throughout the whole, however, Smilla’s observations show she has a feeling for ice. In her late thirties and more or less self-sufficient in life, Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen is the product of Dr Jørgen Moritz Jaspersen, a Danish physician, and Ane Qaavigaaq, a Greenlandic ‘hunter’. Høeg lists Smilla’s life achievements by way of a police record, including ‘Courses at H. C. Ørsted Institute and the Geographical Institute in Copenhagen. Glacial morphology, statistics, and fundamental problems of mathematics.’ She is rendered as capable but acerbic and not the least bit in merit of our concerns.
A first person, largely present tense, narrative drives the text and, although this mostly works, there are occasions where Smilla the character and Høeg the author merge: his authorial disdain for the point he wishes to make through Smilla reminds us that, always in the background of this female lead character is the male author. Høeg, as a male author writing as a female main character, works here only to the degree that we forget he is there until he reminds us. In the character that is Peter Føjl (mostly referred to throughout as ‘the mechanic’), the author creates someone who Smilla develops an intimate relationship with. There is no reason why authors writing in this area and flipping genders can’t be successful, but there is something intangible about Høeg’s writing that dislodges the suspension of fictive disbelief. Perhaps it is not even the writing at fault in this respect but the simple fact of an author’s photograph on the back sleeve to reinforce the divide.
Six main sections separate the whole: the first three are headed as ‘The City’ (being Copenhagen); the next two are ‘The Sea’ (being a trip on board the specially equipped ice-breaker Kronos, en route for a destination secret to the captain and the crew, but which we know to be Greenland); the last is headed as ‘The Ice’ (being the arctic area of the Davis Strait between West Greenland and Canada). The boy, Isaiah, of unspecified age, was a Greenlander, brought to Denmark with his mother after his father died whilst on expedition with Danish explorers: it is Isaiah’s death that prompts the subsequent searching for answers by Smilla, but there is a case to suggest that for the bulk of the pages he is largely forgotten. Such is Høeg’s predisposition for tangling further as he attempts to untangle the whole, or deliberate obfuscation to layer and layer, that Isaiah does rather become secondary to any other threads the author wishes us to follow. Unfortunately, there are just so many threads that some are subsumed, not appreciated, or completely jettisoned in the reading. When they rear their heads again later, the reader wonders where they came from, supposing and trusting that the author had once mentioned them, but not sufficiently engaged enough to return to check.
In the process of Smilla’s investigations, the attempted unravelling, Høeg introduces characters and returns to them, imbuing them with sudden loyalties to her for unfathomable reasons: they spill out explanations on the plot point of the moment, without concern, but still without giving any truly lucid account of what’s happening. Approximately half way into the whole, the author writes (through Smilla) in what is the tiring truncation style that seems to be in ascendancy: ‘Elsa Lübing, Lagermann, Ravn, bureaucrats whose strength and dilemma is their faith in a corporation, in the medical profession, in a government apparatus. But who, out of sympathy, eccentricity, or for some incomprehensible reason, have circumvented their loyalty to help me [sic].’ Authorial self-consciousness does not excuse a lazy device.
In the first sections, and in one regard, Høeg appears determined to show us Copenhagen as he trawls Smilla around place after place, but there is little connect. He lands us in scene after scene where his description is (rather than the presumed intention of a slow unfold) just out of kilter and, like the plot, it isn’t entirely clear what’s going on or where we are, or indeed, why. It often takes a little time to get into a scene because the author has a tendency to start each from a position that builds to his true intent. When he has reached his intended waypoint, some scenes are then described with either such inexactitude or such convoluted intricacy that all sense of placement within them is lost beneath the swill. Sometimes, more is less. Høeg’s prose is often so overly opaque that it dulls the reading experience to the equivalent of merely existing in the pages rather than living the words.
That said, it would be churlish not to mention moments of description that do hit a mark. On a visit to the house of a forensics expert, Dr Lagermann, Smilla is greeted at the door by one of his children. Høeg writes:
Outside it’s five o’clock in the evening. The first stars have appeared in the navy-blue, cloudless sky. But inside, around the child, it’s snowing. A fine layer covers her red hair, her shoulders, her face, and her bare arms.
It transpires that the children are kneading dough on the hardwood floor. In a later section, Høeg describes the widening arc of the mast that Smilla climbs up to reach the crow’s nest of the Kronos, on a rough sea, and he succeeds in inducing a sense of vertigo and sway.
A variety of characters help and hinder her in Copenhagen, and then, by good providence, it would seem, she finds her way onto the Kronos with its crew of shady characters, including the captain who we meet in a casino. There have been two previous expeditions to the Greenland ice, in 1966 and in 1991, and both are documented as dubious by nature. What began as Smilla’s search for the reason for Isaiah’s death morphs into something else in which the boy is merely linked. By this stage of proceedings, however, the reader has become largely numbed in wanting to delve into what has happened and why, and just wants to get to the final exposition. On the ship, Smilla endlessly skulks around the bowels and passageways looking for information to the mystery. Clues are left for us, or discarded by the author. The ship’s characters don’t form any distinct separateness from one another, in any great sense. They have nominal differences and purposes but there is no character development because nothing here is about them. They are merely tools, a means to an end. When one character dies, Peter Føjl flies in, effectively replacing one of Smilla’s sidekicks with another. Føjl has done none of his supposed mechanic vocation throughout, however: he is only a ‘mechanic’ by way of distracting the reader and it transpires that his purpose is as a diver.
There is a reason for the third expedition (following the previous two of 1966 and 1991) and it is under the ice, off Greenland. Perhaps the author has laid the clues down early for what transpires, but those clues, like the discovery in question, are sufficiently buried. For a moment in the pages, it feels as if Høeg might be about to alight on something deep and meaningful by way of the discovery, and maybe that is his intent, but the moment passes. The final scenes, when they come, feel rushed and, again, opaque in description. The denouement is hard to pin down the start of (other than the ship reaches the destination glacier), but in time we watch the unfolding of a version of ‘the villain relates his evil plan’ trope.
Translated partly in British English and partly in American English, one wonders why one or the other could not be used. What Høeg does ‘conform’ to, however, is the seemingly ever-present and unnecessary truncation of sentences in published works. Why do authors feel the need to butcher so barbarically? He writes, for example: ‘He pronounces it slowly and carefully. The way he cooks. His breath is aromatic and tangy. From nuts roasted on the toaster [sic].’ Høeg is also not opposed to the occasional inelegant info dump, using the inserted exposition as a means just to make a further point. For example, he lists article references, late on, (such as in The Geophysical Magazine, 1958, and the Journal of Crystal Growth, 1980) just to eventually highlight Smilla’s unease that stalactites in a huge ice cave might fall on her.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is, undoubtedly, a work that must have taken great effort and consideration in its production, and it is entirely appreciated the labour of time and love that must have gone into such a process. However, ultimately, Peter Høeg provides us with a slow unfolding mystery that returns us to previously hinted at clues or waypoints, which have since become so subsumed by the wallow of the whole that we’ve wholly, or sometimes near completely, forgotten about them. Deep into the work, he writes, as Smilla, sitting on a ship’s bunk with Peter Føjl (the ‘mechanic’/diver), that: ‘We’ve ended up just about where we started. In a morass of secrets. I feel a wild urge to throw myself at him and beg him to anaesthetize [sic] me and wake me up only after it’s all over.’ The reader can concur. Unfortunately, at the end, we find that Høeg obfuscates and frustrates a final time in his last lines when he writes: ‘It’s only what you do not understand that you can come to a conclusion about. There will be no conclusion.’