Peter Høeg Høeg, Peter (Vol. 95) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Høeg 1957–

Danish novelist and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Høeg's career through 1995.

Høeg is primarily known for his novel Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (1992; Smilla's Sense of Snow), which has received widespread critical and popular acclaim and has been published in thirteen countries. In his works, Høeg questions the cultural and political values of modern Denmark, particularly as they relate to the struggle between individuality and societal conformity, values which he believes have detrimental effects on the lives of Danish children. Reviewer Nader Mousavizadeh has stated that "Høeg has brought to modern Danish literature an intensity, a worldliness, a love of language and a depth of learning that entirely on their own have raised the standards for contemporary writing in Denmark."

Biographical Information

Born in Denmark in 1957, Høeg worked as a dancer, actor, athlete, and sailor prior to becoming a writer. Reviewer Laura Shapiro quoted Høeg as saying: "I knew all the time, as I was starting other careers, that this was not final, it was a transition, something that would be replaced by something else. I don't have that feeling any longer. One thing that came to me with writing was peace."

Major Works

Høeg's first novel, Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede (1988; The History of Danish Dreams), covers over four centuries of Danish history through a multi-generational narrative of four families whose descendants are brought together by marriage and chance. In this work, Høeg traces the development of his country from the feudalism of the early 1500s to the post-industrial state of presentday Denmark. Fortællinger om natten (1990) is a collection of stories which examine "love and its conditions on the night of March 19, 1929," focusing on the effects of conformity upon love. Høeg's third work and his first to be translated into English, Smilla's Sense of Snow is the story of Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, a half-Dane, half-Greenland Inuit glaciologist whose knowledge of snow leads her to question the death of her neighbor and friend, an Eskimo child named Isaiah, who is believed to have fallen from a rooftop. Smilla's journey is not only an investigation into Isaiah's death but is also an exposé of cultural conflict in Denmark. Høeg's novel Da måske egnede (1993; Borderliners) chronicles the story of three unrelated orphans named Peter, Katarina, and August, who meet at a boarding school outside of Copenhagen. The school is renowned for its oppressiveness, and Peter and Katarina, who develop an instant attraction to one another, are aided by the wild and uncontrollable August in devising a scheme to upset the regimented routines the headmaster imposes on the students. Peter, who is eventually adopted by a family named Høeg, tells the story in flashback segments which alternate with discourses regarding the nature of time and the effects of social conformity.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Høeg's work has been generally positive. While most critics have praised his strong characterizations and suspenseful plotlines, particularly those in Smilla's Sense of Snow, others have faulted his works for what they consider an obsessive attention to details and disjointed narratives. Høeg's ability to make contemporary Danish social issues appealing to a wider, international audience prompted Mousavizadeh to state: "[No] contemporary writer has done more to liberate Danish culture from its ennui than Peter Høeg." While his combination of genres, plots, and themes can produce mixed reactions among readers, Julia Glass noted in a review of Borderliners that Høeg "is persisting on an uncharted course in fiction, using science to elucidate character and add a new dimension to suspense."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede [The History of Danish Dreams] (novel) 1988
Fortællinger om natten (short stories) 1990
Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne
  [Smilla's Sense of Snow;
also published as Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow] (novel) 1992
Da måske egnede [Borderliners] (novel) 1993
Kvinden og aben (novel) 1996

John Williams (review date 3 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fire and Ice," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 6, No. 268, September 3, 1993, p. 41.

[In the following review of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Williams favorably discusses Høeg's protagonist and the novel's setting.]

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow [is] a European literary sensation from Denmark written by Peter Høeg….

Miss Smilla's is 400 pages long and has a title that screams "dour Teutonic art movie of the 1970s, probably scripted by Peter Handke". And, sure enough, Miss Smilla has its longueurs (not to mention a plot straight out of the Michael Crichton school of scientific conspiracy thrillers). But it is still a very good book indeed.

Its strength lies in the remarkable skill with which Høeg has evoked his heroine and narrator, Smilla Jesperson. Half Dane, half Greenland Eskimo and an underemployed glaciologist, she lives on a bleak, white Copenhagen housing estate, and has frozen herself off from the world.

Then an Eskimo boy, who lives with his alcoholic mother in the flat below, falls to his death and Smilla asks some questions. So a chain of events begins that leads in the end to the warming of Smilla's heart and to a bloody reckoning in eastern Greenland. It's Greenland that gives the novel its strangeness and power as Høeg relieves it of its normal fictional role as empty, hostile territory, there to be conquered, and turns it into a place where people live. And are transported from….

[Miss Smilla] is an arctic tale worthy of Conrad.

Laura Shapiro (review date 6 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Hot Thriller from a Cold Climate," in Newsweek, Vol. 122, No. 10, September 6, 1993, p. 54.

[Shapiro is an American reporter, journalist, and critic. In the following review of Smilla's Sense of Snow, she compares Høeg's work to that of John le Carré.]

Smilla's in another tight spot—a narrow area of open deck, to be specific, on a ship forging through the ice off Greenland in a dark, freezing rain. The man walking toward her wants to throw her overboard, and so does the man coming up behind. This part of the deck is completely isolated, and Smilla's 110 pounds will be easy to toss down to the sea. Even if someone were to hear a scream she isn't...

(The entire section is 928 words.)

Jim McCue (review date 17 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Arctic Nights," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4720, September 17, 1993, p. 20.

[In the following review of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, McCue discusses the style and themes of Høeg's work.]

Every remove from safety makes us feel more reckless, abandoned. [In Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow,] Peter Høeg stretches the supply-lines of security so far that there seems no way back for the ice-maiden Smilla Jaspersen. She is a Greenlander, resettled in Denmark, which already makes her feel like a tightrope-walker "misunderstood by the person holding the rope". Forces which neither she nor the reader can fully comprehend propel her out into...

(The entire section is 803 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 26 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "They Have 23 Words for It," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 26, 1993, pp. 3, 11.

[Eder is an American journalist and critic who won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1987. In the following review of Smilla's Sense of Snow, he discusses the novel's characters.]

Like John le Carré and Graham Greene before him, Peter Hoeg has given a thriller, Smilla's Sense of Snow, moral and political resonance. As Smilla pursues the killers of an Eskimo boy through Copenhagen and then into the ice fields of Greenland, this outwardly stiff, inwardly passionate and quite unforgettable protagonist is after something larger than a particular crime....

(The entire section is 1132 words.)

Robert Nathan (review date 26 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Irritable, Depressed, Spoiled, and Terrific," in The New York Times Book Review], September 26, 1993, p. 12.

[In the following review of Smilla's Sense of Snow, Nathan praises the book, especially for its elements of suspense.]

Try this for an offer you could easily refuse. How would you like to be locked in a room for a couple of days with an irritable, depressed malcontent who also happens to be imperiously smart, bored and more than a little spoiled? Say no, and you will miss not only a splendid entertainment but also an odd and seductive meditation on the human condition.

With Smilla's Sense of Snow, his American debut...

(The entire section is 934 words.)

Shaun Whiteside (review date 7 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Telltale Footprints in the Snow," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 149, No. 19, November 7, 1993, p. 29.

[In the following mixed review of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Whiteside declares preference for the first half of the novel.]

Famously, the Inuit people have an enormous number of words for different kinds of snow. The snow falling on little Isaiah's coffin, as Peter Hoeg's intriguing thriller [Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow] opens, is qanik—"big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverised white frost"—and we have encountered many more by the conclusion. Isaiah, a child...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Michael Meyer (review date 18 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Danger: Thin Ice," in The New York Review of Books, Vol XL, No. 19, November 18, 1993, p. 41.

[In the following review of Smilla's Sense of Snow, Meyer, though praising Høeg's descriptions of Greenland, contends that many of the novel's characterizations are too undifferentiated.]

Smilla's Sense of Snow, by the young and already much acclaimed Danish novelist Peter Hoeg, is a mystery story with heavy scientific undertones. The chief character and narrator is a half-Eskimo, half-Danish woman of thirty-seven, living in Copenhagen, a semi-voluntary exile haunted by her Greenland heritage and her memories of that strange and magical land. She is...

(The entire section is 970 words.)

Pearl K. Bell (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fiction Chronicle," in Partisan Review, Vol. LXI, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 80-95.

[In the following excerpt, Bell offers a mixed assessment of Smilla's Sense of Snow, praising the characterization of Smilla but lamenting Høeg's loss of focus towards the end of the novel.]

There are impenetrable mysteries of a very different kind in Smilla's Sense of Snow by the young Danish novelist Peter Hoeg. For one thing it's hard to figure out what genre this dense and tantalizing story belongs to—is it a murder mystery, science fiction, morality tale, or an intricately plotted adventure wrapped in a carapace of technical information, a la Tom Clancy? At...

(The entire section is 777 words.)

Julian Loose (review date 12 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cool," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 9, May 12, 1994, p. 27.

[In the following review of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Loose finds the work to be more than a murder-mystery thriller, declaring it "a remorseless, unforgettable indictment of (the Danish) colonial history (of Greenland)."]

Thrillers are routinely deemed 'chilling', as though our feelings of fear and cold are in some way interchangeable. Yet outlandishly low temperatures alone cannot account for the tremendous success of Peter Høeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, even if it does open with a bleak Copenhagen December, and go on to describe a still colder...

(The entire section is 1898 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 6 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Time Never Stops," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 6, 1994, p. 3, 11.

[In the following review of Borderliners, Eder describes the novel as "more a philosophic allegory than a story" in which the most evil force is time itself.]

Ostensibly, the villain of Peter Hoeg's novel about the rebellion of three tormented children at a progressive Danish boarding school is the tyrannically self-righteous headmaster. Borderliners, though, is more a philosophic allegory than a story; and its real villain is linear time—time, that is, as an inflexible progress that the powerful misuse to constrain the circular talents and zigzag impulses of...

(The entire section is 1181 words.)

David Sacks (review date 20 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Last Chance, and a Nasty One," in The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1994, p. 31.

[Sacks is an American educator and critic. In the following review of Borderliners, he praises Høeg's descriptive details but notes problems with the novel's plot and philosophical underpinnings.]

At an elite but monstrously repressive prep school outside Copenhagen, circa 1971, the human spirit is affirmed by three teen-agers, a girl and two boys, who band together subversively. All three are orphans, wards of the state, admitted to the school as part of a national scholarship program for the underprivileged. All three are "border-liners," with social or...

(The entire section is 698 words.)

Laura Shapiro (review date 28 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Gripping Tale out of School," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXIV, No. 22, November 28, 1994, p. 68.

[In the following review of Borderliners, Shapiro, though noting the "choking" effect of the narrative voice, offers a positive assessment of Høeg's book.]

Peter Hoeg has been a popular novelist in his native Denmark for years, but hardly anybody in this country had heard of him until Smilla's Sense of Snow appeared here last year. What a calling card! A brainy, witty thriller, Smilla caused a sensation; when Hoeg mentioned in interviews that he had finished another novel, his new fans were delighted. "It's very different," he said at the time....

(The entire section is 310 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 29 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From a Sense of Snow to a Tussle with Time," in The New York Times, November 29, 1994, p. C19.

[Kakutani is a regular reviewer for The New York Times. In the following review of Borderliners, she assesses the novel as "a willfully elliptical narrative that often tries the reader's patience."]

Like Peter Hoeg's last novel, the best-selling Smilla's Sense of Snow, Borderliners is one of those books that functions on two levels. Smilla was both a thriller and a philosophical meditation on the human condition; Borderliners is both a harrowing tale of an orphan's ordeals within the Danish child-care system and a philosophical...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Sarah A. Smith (review date 6 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Clock and Watch," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 7, No. 334, January 6, 1995, p. 37.

[In the following review of Borderliners, Smith positively assesses the novel and finds that Høeg "writes with a sense of ambiguity that seems appropriate to the voice of the disturbed."]

Borderliners is Peter Høeg's second novel to appear in English translation. Written with extraordinary intellectual and creative energy, it explores the plight of three children caught within a rigorous and idealistic education system. Although not as accessible as Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, the sense that Høeg's writing is so passionately felt makes this a...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

Nora Underwood (review date 20 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Prisoners of Time," in Maclean's, Vol. 108, No. 8, February 20, 1995, pp. 66-7.

[In the following review of Borderliners, Underwood praises Høeg's storyline but finds his discourse regarding the nature of time an encumbrance to the narrative.]

When Peter Hoeg's novel Smilla's Sense of Snow was released in 1993, it caused a sensation, garnering rave reviews and residing on best-seller lists for months. It deserved the acclaim. The third novel by Danish author Peter Hoeg—and the first to be translated into English—Smilla was a gripping thriller that took its intellectual, emotionally cool heroine on a mysterious journey from the wind...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

John David Morley (review date 22 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Northern Exposure," in The New York Times, October 22, 1995, p. 26.

[Morley is a British novelist, translator, and critic. In the following positive review of The History of Danish Dreams, he compares Høeg's writing to that of such writers as Milan Kundera, Selma Lagerlof, and Hans Christian Andersen.]

If books could be assigned geometrical shapes (an idea that Smilla, the heroine of Smilla's Sense of Snow, with her feeling not only for snow but for higher mathematics, would surely have endorsed), then Peter Hoeg's new novel, actually his first, might be viewed as a pyramid. The History of Danish Dreams has a tripartite structure. Part 1,...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

John Skow (review date 6 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Old Trunk," in Time, Vol. 146, No. 19, November 6, 1995, p. 84.

[In the following review, Skow offers a mixed assessment of The History of Danish Dreams, noting that the novel contains elements of magic realism as well as satire.]

One of the strong subsurface themes of Smilla's Sense of Snow, the fine 1993 thriller by Peter Hoeg, a Danish novelist then new to America, was a slyly expressed contempt for what the author saw as his country's bourgeois self-satisfaction. This much relished contempt and cheerfully malign slyness are the driving forces of Hoeg's first novel, The History of Danish Dreams, which has now been issued in the U.S....

(The entire section is 365 words.)

Jim Shepard (review date 24 December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beauty, Truth and the Danish Way" in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, December, 24, 1995, pp. 3, 8.

[Shepard is an American educator, novelist, and critic. In the following review of The History of Danish Dreams, he discusses Høeg's treatment of the self-deluding "dreams," or myths, present in both Danish and Western culture and how they contribute to human suffering.]

One of the many good things that happens to an author when his third book is acclaimed far and wide is that his first and second books receive renewed attention. (This means that whenever one of our books disappears, we console ourselves with the belief that once we publish our own...

(The entire section is 1449 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Frank, Jeffrey. "Prisoners of Time and Chance," The Washington Post Book World XXIV, No. 50 (11 December 1994): 9.

Review of Borderliners in which Frank discusses Høeg in comparison to other Danish writers, touches upon the theme of time, and outlines the oddities in the work's English translation.

Glass, Julia. "Peter Høeg's New Tale of Time, Trauma and Character." Chicago Tribune—Books (1 January 1995) 3, 7.

Mixed review of Borderliners in which Glass states that Høeg "is persisting on an uncharted course in fiction, using science to...

(The entire section is 141 words.)