To Siberia: A Novel Hardcover – Sep 30 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This 1996 novel predates Pettersen's acclaimed Out Stealing Horses (first published in 2003), and has all of Pettersen's haunted charms. As an unnamed young girl and her big brother, Jesper (who calls her Sistermine), grow up in rural WWII-era Denmark, the two cope with distant parents, an eccentric extended family and the cold wind. Jesper longs to go south to Morocco; Sistermine yearns for the plains of Siberia, foreshadowing lives that will diverge. Their grandfather's suicide, the arrival of puberty and most tragically, the German invasion change their idyllic childhood relationship; as each sibling fights back against the occupation in his or her own way, their inevitable separation looms. The second half of the novel, in which Sistermine struggles to make sense of her life in various Scandinavian cities and towns, awaiting a hoped-for reunion with Jesper, is less breathtaking and mesmerizing than the first, but the contrast makes her numb loneliness and inability to connect all the more poignant. The book builds up slowly, casting a spell of beauty and devastation that matches the bleak but dazzling climate that enshrouds Sistermine's young life. (Oct.)
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From Library Journal
The realization of life's unfulfilled dreams is the theme of this beautifully written novel, which recounts the unnamed narrator's childhood and adolescence in a small Danish town. She dearly loves her brother, Jesper, the only person in her family she cares about. Her rigid, intolerant parents are unresponsive to her need for affection, scarred by the suicide of her grandfather and her mother's Christianity. Then the Germans bring World War II to their quiet world, and life changes. Jesper joins the underground and is forced to flee the Gestapo. Our narrator continues to dream of escape to Siberia, which in her imagination is an idyllic place where her wishes come true and she is happy. In the final pages, she comes to the realization that her parents are more intolerant than ever, her beloved brother is dead, and she will never be able to fulfill her dream. The author of a story collection and an earlier novel, Norwegian writer Petterson is an outstanding talent. Highly recommended.ALisa Rohrbaugh, East Palestine Memorial P.L., OH
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.