Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow brought its author international recognition. Peter Høeg's previous books were acclaimed in his home country, but it was this thriller that gave the Danish author a worldwide profile. Five years after publication, Hollywood released a film based on Høeg's book, starring Julia Ormond as Smilla and Gabriel Byrne as the mechanic. The film also turned out to be a success. Why is that? Why did an overly complicated story about a single unemployed woman, who has difficulty with human interactions yet sets off on an improbable journey to solve a complicated mystery single-handed, capture the attention of readers and movie audiences around the world?
Maybe because the settings are so exotic: there are very few books which even mention Greenland, let alone plot a storyline around it. Maybe because Høeg's style is so erudite and charming and so vivid that we feel cold from the first page to the last (the book is brilliantly translated into English by Tiina Nunnally). Or maybe because it is a well constructed thriller with an interesting romantic plot, which is what so many readers look for in a novel.
Smilla's portrayal is central to the appeal of the book. She may irritate with her pretentious behaviour and annoy with her lack of empathy towards the rest of the world, but she also charms with her intellect and determination (which sometimes can be confused with stubborness) and with a certain vulnerability which surfaces when she falls in love with the mechanic.
As for the criminal plot, it is definitely engaging, if often improbable. Smilla is too lucky in her blind guesswork and too quickly correct in inferring fact from vague clues. The unravelling of the mystery is disappointing, as it's too easy to solve a complicated puzzle by using an unreal 'magical' object (a meteorite with bizarre organic properties). The ending is far-fetched and inconclusive.
The novel's strongest point, an empathy for Greenlandic culture supressed by Danish colonization, nevertheless remains more of an ethnographic study spiced with American-style conspiracy theory than a thorough understanding of the problem. But the book is perhaps the only novel of recent times to explore Greenlandic issues and the cultural and political reality of the island.
As happens with every best-selling book, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow has attracted devoted fans as well as bitter critics. Yet despite all its flaws, the book deserves its great success, thanks to Høeg's epic style and the charm of his main characters.