Picks and Pans Review: Smilla's Sense of Snow

updated 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Peter Hoeg

To tell the plot of this superbly constructed thriller is to convey nothing of the seductive strangeness of its deadpan style—let alone the glacial toughness of its heroine, a half Inuit from Greenland transplanted to Copenhagen, seat of Greenland's Danish rulers. The combination of suspense narrative, Hemingway-esque prose, exotic setting and spellbinding central female probably accounts for the buzz of excitement around the author, a Dane and former professional dancer never before published in English.

Smilla is an expert on glaciers. Outwardly the book is about her attempt to avenge the apparent murder of a neighbor's child. At a deeper level it is about cultural collisions between the industrial world and more primal places that have fallen under Western sway.

The first half is set in the city, the next quarter at sea. The final quarter takes Smilla onto the ice, in which she sees intricately varied conditions, all so poetically evoked that the story never sounds like a science lesson. The forces blocking her investigation include a multinational minerals corporation, prosecutorial bureaucrats and a museum led by an assimilated and condescending Inuit. En route, Smilla encounters individual Danes who help her, but they are not around when she is kicked, stabbed, suffocated, shot at and almost thrown overboard in subfreezing Arctic waters—only to keep going like a short, female Schwarzenegger, hurtable but not stoppable in her righteous indignation. In Hoeg's able hands, it all seems real. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $21.00)

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