“Let it snow!” (Dean Martin)

Or, you know, don’t.  A friend of mine from the east coast of America asked me last week why all the weather reports in the UK were focussing on snowmageddon when really, very little happened. A German colleague is baffled every year by our total inability to deal with anything above a flurry. I have no answers for them. What I do have, in honour of the snow that barely made an appearance last week, is novels where there is serious snow. Snow that means business. Snow you have to dig yourself out of. If only because then I get to include this gif:

199676-penguin-in-the-snow

Firstly Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson (2010, tr.2015 Quentin Bates 2015). I’m not a huge reader of crime fiction set any time after the middle of the last century, but I was convinced by the enthusiastic reviews of FictionFan and Sarah from Hard Book Habit, and the promise that this was like a golden age crime novel but with a contemporary, Icelandic setting (the author translated Agatha Christie into Icelandic when he was 17).

Rookie copper Ari Thor Arason leaves Reykjavik and his girlfriend behind to take a posting in the remote town of Siglufjordur, in the far north of Iceland. A place so small you don’t need to drive to get around, and only accessible via a mountain pass.

“On the right were the snow white mountains, magnificent and formidable, while on the other side was a terrifying, sheer drop onto the expanse of Skagafjordur. One mistake on a patch of ice and there would be no tomorrow…he relaxed as the tunnel entrance finally approached. They had made it all the way in one piece. But his relief was short-lived. He expected a broad, well-lit modern tunnel, but what lay in front of him looked forbidding. It was a narrow single track. Ari Thor later learned it had been carved through the mountainside more than forty years ago when there were only a few tunnels in Iceland. It didn’t help that water dripped here and there from the unseen rock ceiling above. Ari Thor suddenly felt himself struck by a feeling he had never experienced before – an overwhelming claustrophobia.”

As Ari Thor settles into life in place where everyone knows everyone and no-one locks their doors, a local celebrity falls down some stairs whilst drunk and dies (or did he? or was he?) When a woman is found close to death, bleeding out in the snow in her garden, the police start to suspect that the two may be linked. As “every winter is a heavy winter in Siglufjordur”, the mountain pass is soon made unpassable through an avalanche, and so essentially what  Jonasson has done is use the snow to create a claustrophobic, tense, locked-room murder mystery (please commend me on my enormous restraint in avoiding snow-based puns like ‘chilling’ or ‘unsettling’, despite the fact it is both those things).

Snowblind is a short novel (252 pages in my edition) and so I can’t say much more without spoilers. What I will say is that it feels resolutely contemporary with references to the financial crash which devastated Iceland at the time (although for the once-busy port of Siglufjordur, “if there’s a recession here, it comes from the sea”) whilst at the same time being part of a tradition of non-gory, page-turning whodunits. Siglufjordur itself is wonderfully evoked, with a real sense of place created, whilst at the same time becoming a fictional other, and somewhat eerie.

Siglufjordur

Siglufjordur

Image from here

“This peaceful little town was being compressed by the snow, no longer a familiar winter embrace but a threat like never before. The white was no longer pure, but tinged blood red.”

Secondly, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg (1992, tr. F David 1993) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit (new year’s resolution from now on – stop being so euro-centric with this challenge). I distinctly remember all the hype around this novel when it first came out. Not that I’m slow on the uptake, but 24 years later, I’ve finally read it. These days we are awash with antisocial-genius detectives but back in the day Smilla Jaspersen may have been more of a novelty:

“I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessing of the church. It’s the light of grace for me.”

Smilla does need people, even if she doesn’t like to admit it, and when her neighbour, six year old  Isiah, falls to his death from a roof, she is galvanised to act:

“Isiah’s death is an irregularity, an eruption that produced a fissure. That fissure has set me free. For a brief time, and I can’t explain how, I have been set in motion, I have become a foreign body skating on top of the ice.”

Smilla, half-Greenlandic, can read the snow and she knows Isiah’s last footprints tell a different story to the one the authorities are spinning. This is a theme throughout the novel, which is as much a commentary on post-colonial power structures as it a detective story. Smilla has a history of far left political activism and is not easily cowed by those trying to silence her. I found her a believable, idiosyncratic heroine and really enjoyed her matter-of-fact voice:

 “The knives I keep in my apartment are just sharp enough to open envelopes with… I don’t need anything sharper. Otherwise, on bad days, it might easily occur to me that I could always go and stand in the bathroom and slit my throat. Against such a contingency it’s nice to have the added security of needing to go downstairs and borrow a decent knife from a neighbour.”

My quibble would be that I thought the story lost momentum a bit when Smilla left Denmark and journeyed towards Greenland; I think the return to the land of her childhood was inevitable so maybe it needed a heavier edit earlier in the novel. But overall, an intriguing premise for an intelligent mystery with a strong political message.

“Reading snow is like listening to music. To describe what you’ve read is to try and explain music in writing.”

To end, the unintentionally hilarious trailer for the film adaptation. So very earnest, so very heavy-handed 😀  (and yet still following the Hollywood tradition of whitewashing, unless Julia Ormond is part-indigenous Greenlander?)

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26 thoughts on ““Let it snow!” (Dean Martin)

  1. That film trailer should come with a warning ‘May contain ham’ – incredible cast, but I daren’t go there, I loved the book too much to risk seeing it.
    I’m furious at all the weather experts who promised what they couldn’t deliver with last week’s snow ‘no show’. Like you I’ve had to turn to books for zero temperature consolation (in my case, Tove Jansson and Yrsa Sigurdardottir). Still, ‘Cast’ a new Icelandic tv drama starts next week, from the same director that made ‘Trapped’ and hopefully that will go some way to meeting my modest January requirements of extreme weather, claustrophobia and gory crime that the Met office has clearly deemed unreasonable!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s such an amazing cast, isn’t it? So many brilliant actors, and yet it looks so unbelievably dreadful. I’m not going to go there either!

      I adore Tove Jansson 🙂 I’ve not read any Yrsa Sigurdardottir but having read about her on Crimeworm’s blog this week I plan to remedy this soon.

      That’s so exciting about Cast! I really liked Trapped and I’m suffering withdrawal from Modus finishing just before Christmas, so I will definitely be watching. We’ll be able to fulfill modest winter requirements so well it won’t even matter that it’s not *actually* snowing….er, maybe….

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  2. I haven’t read either of these books or seen the movie version of Miss S. That trailer… honestly, it’s like something my kids make on iMovie 😀

    As a general rule, I abhor the cold and snow BUT I’m currently reading an interesting memoir by someone based at a station in Antarctica. The odd thing is that the author can feel the difference between -20 degrees and -40 degrees – I would have thought they would both be filed under “Bloody freezing.”

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    • The trailer’s hilarious isn’t it? It’s not making me want to rush out and watch that film, for sure 😀

      I’m pretty sure that by -20 all coherent thought would have ended for me and I’d be curled in a ball whimpering. I definitely wouldn’t be able to tell if it then dropped a further 20 degrees to -40. Sounds horrific!

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  3. You know, it’s funny. I had to revisit Smilla quite recently for my book group and I didn’t particularly enjoy it second time around. The characterisation is excellent and very distinctive, but the plot line just felt very convoluted. Maybe my tastes and tolerance levels have changed in the 20 years since I first read it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s really interesting, because I do remember all the fuss when it came out and I wonder if it would garner quite so much enthusiasm today. I thought it was good but I think the response may not be quite so effusive today, because we’ve read & viewed so many stories in a similar vein.

      I’m definitely less tolerant than I was 20 years ago! Back then I would always finish a book. Nowadays I don’t torture myself any longer than necessary (although my DNFs are mercifully few)!

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  4. You brought back happy memories. I loved Smilla when it came out – I even read another Peter Hoeg book ‘Borderliners’ on the back of it. It wasn’t bad but not in same league as Smilla. But it did do Smilla better justice than that awful trailer – I especially loved the ‘Sense of Passion!’ Bit!!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to have brought back happy memories 🙂 I don’t think you’re alone in that opinion of Borderliners, from what i understand Hoeg has never repeated the success of Smilla.

      The ‘Sense of Passion’ was so bad wasn’t it? Cue gratuitous lovemaking scene….!

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  5. Glad you enjoyed Snowblind and thanks for the link! 😀 I actually liked the second one Nightblind even more – I felt his writing technique had improved quite a lot between the two books, and it still had that sense of claustrophobia. Oh dear – Smilla is on my TBR – please reassure me the book is better than the trailer!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome – thanks for convincing me to give Jonasson a try, I definitely want to read the rest of his stuff now, it’s great to hear he gets better 🙂

      I absolutely promise you unreservedly that Smilla the book is better than that trailer!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. For some reason I’m always drawn to books about, or set in, the snow and ice. Ships trapped in ice, exploration of the poles, kids ‘lost in the barrens’ (Farley Mowat), snowstorms trapping people in or out of their houses… so many possibilities. Maybe it’s because I live in Canada, and feel the need to be prepared for “the big one”? Who knows… But I need to add more to my list. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely understand – there’s something dramatic about snow. The way it’s so silent yet can have such force, and the way it changes the familiar into something extraordinary, and it’s beautiful but we can’t have too much of it – not without adequate preparation!

      It’s a brilliant device for writers. I would definitely like to read more icy books – I’ll need to make a list too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh dear! Oh dear! The trailer – I LOVED Miss Smilla which I read on first publication (should I re-read – probably) I think the penguin should have played her. I’d love to snowboard on MY tum like that…if only I had the feathers to keep me warm and dry. Ah well, perhaps the next incarnation. (hugs the radiator a little closer)

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  8. I loved Smilla, it would be one of my desert island books. i also find it fascinating how Peter Hoeg has written absolutely nothing like it, at all, ever since. Like Michel Faber, you never know what’s coming next. And they both are really very good at writing from the perspective of the opposite sex, probably as they don’t try too hard to make it that way.

    And the weather is crazy this year, and not just here. I am regular viewer of the Icelandic webcams, and they’ve had hardly any snow compared to previous years. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is the only Hoeg I’ve read but if he’s like Faber, I’m sold! I totally agree they are both excellent at writing women.

      I had no idea the rest of Europe had equally mad weather so far *tries not to panic about climate change*

      You’ve got me wondering about my desert island books now – this will keep me occupied for days…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. HAH that is an unintentionally hilarious trailer, you are right. It started out okay but…. Also THERE IS A MOVIE AND NO ONE TOLD ME UNTIL NOW?!?! 😀 Have you seen it? It’s been so long since I read the book…

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