This beautiful, haunting coming-of-age tale set in wartime (WWII) Denmark is a rarity in contemporary fiction. Petterson builds character and place so quietly that at first you (being a contemporary reader) may want more, but in part 2, when the German army invades and the plot kicks in, you'll be glad for it; in the end the payoff is immense. Give it a shot, and the time; you won't regret it -- particularly those of you in the States, where the book is unavailable.
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46 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Stark and poeticOct. 4 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
This is a poignant, almost desperate story of a young girl and her brother growing up in northern Denmark during World War II and the life-altering ramifications following the Nazi invasion of Denmark.
The sparse, almost poetically written story is recounted by a 60 year-old woman looking back on her childhood and her special closeness to her older brother. Growing up in hard economic times in a remote part of Denmark with a family focused on survival left little room for love and nurture. The siblings learn to rely on each other instead and like all children growing up in small towns, they dream of the day they will leave: our narrator dreams of taking the Trans-Siberian railroad, while her brother longs for the day he can head off to Morocco.
Family tragedy forces the narrator to rely even more on her brother and later, as he becomes more involved in the Nazi resistance, his actions will lead to events that will change not only the directions their lives take, but also their perceptions of the world and the people in it. This is as much a tale of how events shape the person we become as it is a stark coming-of-age story.
Concentration on the part of the reader is mandatory: time and place will change quickly, often within a single sentence. You will not find a comprehensive history of the Nazi invasion of Denmark here. The novel is more like a series of snapshots which, when pieced together, reveal the personal consequences of an historical event.
If you are looking for a quick, easily digestible read this is not the book you are looking for. But if you are willing to put in the effort, you will be rewarded with beautifully written passages that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Perhaps a good comparison is Cormac McCarthy's The Road...if you enjoyed that, I'd be willing to bet you'll love To Siberia.
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
A life that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish" (if not short)Oct. 29 2008
R. M. Peterson
- Published on Amazon.com
Having been bowled over by Petterson's "Out Stealing Horses" (OSH) and impressed by his "In the Wake" (ITW) I was eager to read TO SIBERIA, the third of his novels to be released in translation in the United States (although it predates both OSH and ITW). It too is powerful, and beautifully written. It may not be great literature, as I believe OSH to be, but it probably is slightly finer than ITW (although it may be unfair to compare that novel to any other, given the acute cathartic nature it must represent for Petterson).
The narrator of TO SIBERIA is a sixty-year-old Danish Woman. TO SIBERIA is her account of the major events in her life -- and the lives of her grandfather, her father, and especially her brother -- from the time she was six or seven (about 1932) until she was an unwed mother in her early twenties (about 1948). Her life in a coastal village in Jutland, northern Denmark, was harsh and lacking in excitement, and as a girl she vowed one day to go to Siberia (for reasons that really don't make sense). She never makes it, physically at least. (It might be said that existentially she spends her entire life in Siberia.) Her brother Jesper, her one true friend and soulmate in life, wanted to go to Morocco. He ended up achieving that goal, but in the end that hardly represented a "dream come true" story. Looking back, the narrator sums up the years covered by her account thus: "I was so young then, and I remember thinking: I'm twenty-three years old, there is nothing left in life. Only the rest."
Thus, the novel is one of ruefulness, melancholy, and even quiet desperation, set in an appropriately grim, bleak, and cold Scandinavia, the harshness of which is intensified over the four years of the Nazi occupation. I see that several reviewers, both here on the Amazon site and elsewhere, refer to the book as a "coming-of-age" novel, but I don't find that characterization to be apt. To me "coming-of-age" novels are success stories, but there is no success in TO SIBERIA other than survival. It brings to mind the language of Thomas Hobbes that the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Of course, Hobbes was referring to life in "the state of nature," before and without government. For our anonymous narrator (and Petterson as well?) Hobbes's phrase would appear to apply also to civilized modern life.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Beautifully written...Oct. 5 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
The story is set in a rural, poor fishing village in North Jutland, Denmark in WWII-era. It is told in three sections by an unnamed sixty-year old woman who recalls her life growing up and - specifically, her bond with her brother Jesper (who calls her "Sistermine"). The first section is about her childhood and her family - - the second takes place in her teen years in the days of German occupation - - and finally, the last section takes place in her 20's when she travels through Sweden, Denmark and Norway and eventually returns home.
Sistermine and Jesper do not get much love or affection from their pious Mother and often silent hunchback Father. So, they grow up together unsupervised sharing late night adventures and experiences. They grow to learn that "the world was far bigger than the town I lived in," and they look forward to "my own great journey." Jesper yearns to move to the warm climate of Morocco while Sistermine has her sights set on Siberia. The German occupation shatters the idyllic setting and future they have drawn up for themselves. Jesper gets involved in the German resistance movement and eventually has to run to Sweden - and Sistermine watches him depart on a boat. She eventually wanders through Scandinavia trying to find meaning and purpose in life - fighting constant loneliness, missing her brother and struggling to connect in her relationships with others - and waiting to reconnect with Jesper.
"I'm twenty-three years old, there is nothing left in life. Only the rest."
"The days go by, and I go with them," she says, "but I do not count them."
This story is somber, solemn, sorrowful, desolate and lonely.
Petterson works magic with beautiful haunting prose of people and place.
"My mother is velvet, my mother is iron. My father often stays silent and sometimes over dinner he picks up the burning hot pan by its iron handle and holds it until I have filled my plate, and when he puts it back I can see the red marks on his hand."
He uses simple, spare, stark language not unlike Cormac McCarthy ("The Road" / "All The Pretty Horses") where you get to share in the simplest delights in life.
"I have to stand on the pedals (of my bicyle) so as not to get a pain in the bum, and then I look out over mustard fields growing a meter high on each side. A puff of wind and everything moves."
If there is one criticism of this work - he doesn't close many open loops. The memories recalled by Sistermine are shared in a dream-like state and often with deep sorrow and loss. Dark family tensions and tragic family events occur and yet you never gain much of an understanding of why. For example, a family member commits suicide. "The paper was folded twice without a speck on it and bore a note in his handwriting: I cannot go on any longer." Why? - - Mother and Family rarely show any affection to each or to their children. "I don't understand it, they never touch each other." Why? - - Sistermine's school friend dies. Why? - - Significant tensions exist between Sistermine's parents and grandparents yet you don't get a peak into Why? Perhaps I was looking for a nice red ribbon to tie it all together for a Disney finish - and life isn't so tidy - yet I found as beautiful as this book was written - it often left me unsatisfied with not knowing.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Pure MagicOct. 10 2008
S. L. Parker
- Published on Amazon.com
I was swept away by Per Petterson's outstanding novel, "Out Stealing Horses" and I was literally waiting at the door for the UPS driver to deliver this latest release. I was not disappointed! However, this not an easy read and it took me a little longer to get thru this story than normal, but it was well worth the trouble.
This is not your ordinary "coming of age" novel, but pure poetry in the way the author can put words to paper to make the reader actually feel like you're right there with that cold Scandinavian wind blowing in your face. Like another reviewer stated, there are some loose ends in the story but it's my feeling that Mr. Petterson intends to leave those ends hanging in order to let the reader put their own personal feelings into play as to the how's and why's of what he's trying to tell us.
I highly recommend this book and although it sometimes seems to drag at the beginning, stick with it, savor every word because you will not be disappointed when you finish this gem.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Poignant and poeticOct. 5 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
Having read and reviewed Per Petterson's "Out Stealing Horses" a while ago, I had no idea that this was an earlier work. Just as with "Out Stealing Horses", Petterson is a consummate writer who is able to evoke the complexities within human relationships. Here, the focus is on a pair of siblings - older brother Jesper and younger sister Sistermine, who live in a small town in northern Denmark, on the North Sea. Spanning the years 1934-1947, the story traces the pair's dreams and strong kinship through all sorts of travails.
The two are drawn closer to each other because their own parents seem unable to provide emotionally - and each dream of escape - Sistermine wishes to go to Siberia, and Jesper to Morocco. The Nazi invasion throws their lives into further turmoil - Jesper works for the resistance and Sistermine faces a harsh life under the Nazi occupiers.
The story goes on to tell what happens to both siblings and Per Petterson deftly portrays the complex lives of his characters, both within and without. Highly recommended.