Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Review: Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg

8/10, a mystery with beautiful evocative writing, a carefully constructed plot, and a rambling third act

I have no idea how they made this book into a movie. It’s dense, from a writer who is clearly from the "beautiful sentence" school rather than the "plot" school, which makes it somewhat of an odd duck because those kinds of writers don’t usually tackle murder mysteries. But Hoeg acquits himself well, setting up a strange and intriguing cast of characters and an engaging mystery.

Smilla, a Greenlander living in Denmark, comes home to find a friend of hers lying dead in the snow, having apparently jumped from the roof. That’s what the police believe, but Smilla knows better: he was afraid of heights, so if he wanted to kill himself, why would he jump from the roof? She thinks he was chased up there and off, and her unraveling of the mystery surrounding her friend’s death is a confusing but compelling journey through Copenhagen’s upperworld and underworld, and through the tangled trauma of Greenland’s assimilation into Danish culture.

Sounds like a great movie, huh?

Anyway. Smilla is a terrific character, and her "sense of snow" is a peculiar ability she has to know where things are and which direction to go, which has not helped her do the same in life. She’s scornful and afraid of love, inconvenient considering she begins to fall for the mechanic who’s helping her unravel the case.

Hoeg does a terrific job at doling out information piece by piece, occasionally keeping too much back but generally giving you some great surprises. One of my favorite structures in a mystery is the scene that the protagonist plays along with you, and then at the end pulls out that one detail you might have missed that is the key to moving forward, which changes the whole cast of the scene before and the story to date. That’s hard to do, but Hoeg pulls it off a couple times here.

He’s also great at building tension throughout the book, though by the end there’s so much tension that you feel it’s impossible to get a real payoff from it, and in some sense you’d be right. The end is rather anticlimactic and deliberately obscure–a disappointment to someone who considers endings the second most important part of a book. But there’s enough other good stuff here, albeit densely packed in, to make the book definitely worth a read.

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