A little while ago, our Curator, Charlotte, asked for suggestions for Polar-themed reading. The response was both enthusiastic and eclectic, and covered everything from fiction to science, and from cultural history to biographies.
This has inspired some of us to write about some favourite Polar books, and we’ll be posting about them here over the next few months – our own Polar book group! The first post comes from the SPRI Librarian, Peter Lund, and is about a novel that he first read over 20 years ago: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.
If you would like to contribute a blog post or review about your favourite Polar book, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to see them!
It was, I think, December 1993 when I walked into Waterstone’s in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and first picked up Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. Forever settling down to read it in the midst of Christmas family get-togethers intrigued my family and friends – what makes this novel so compelling?
You get the chilling sense of atmosphere as well as a hint of Smilla’s displacement from Greenland from the opening lines:
“IT IS FREEZING, an extraordinary -180C, and it’s snowing, and in the language that 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.”
Touch the language, breathe the description, then meet the bloody-minded, committed heroine, Smilla Jaspersen who engages you with her grit, panache and a style which is all her own. In the book’s first City-set section we are quickly drawn into her isolated existence, a Greenlander adrift in Copenhagen. The mystery of the death of Isaiah, a boy she befriended, son of her neighbour in her block of apartments is unveiled. We understand her need to investigate his seemingly accidental death, and her distrust of the authorities. During subsequent locations at Sea and on the Ice the mystery is cleverly developed, creating a masterpiece and the novel succeeds handsomely as a thriller.
But what brings me to re-read Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is much more than Nordic noir. I loved reliving the evocative description of place – be it Copenhagen at night, the base at Thule in Greenland or the glacial sense of ice and snow. I delighted in the many incidental scenes – how Smilla recognises a Volvo car shadowing her, her penchant for reading Euclid’s Elements to Isaiah, falling in love, her latent expertise in the physics of snow and ice. There’s the author’s casual, yet confident, grasp of technical details; Smilla doesn’t recognise any old rope, it’s: “8mm Kernmantle double rope in bright alpine safety colours – a friend from the ice cap”. Then there are the ironic throwaway lines at the end of some chapters bringing a sharp sense of humour. There’s so much to delight in reading and re-reading Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.
In North Greenland distances are measured in siniks, by ‘sleeps’, the number of nights that a journey requires. It’s been many siniks since I first read Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow: it’s been wonderful to rediscover this novel in the Scott Polar Research Institute Library.