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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 28.
- Review Date: 2008-06-16
- Reviewer: Staff
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.)
Siblings discover the power of dreams
Published in England in 1998 and now available in the U.S. for the first time, Per Petterson's To Siberia is a worthy successor to his acclaimed 2007 novel, Out Stealing Horses. It's an affecting story of a sister and brother united by love and imagination.
Petterson's novel spans the period from 1934 to 1947, and is narrated by Sistermine (a pet name given to her by older brother Jesper), who is age nine when the novel opens, living in a small town at the northern tip of Denmark on the North Sea. Sistermine's parentsa skilled but unsuccessful carpenter father and a devoutly religious motherare as cold as the bleak Danish landscape. Their emotional distance draws Jesper and Sistermine ever closer, both of them dreaming of escaping into the wider world. Jesper pictures himself in Morocco, while Sistermine imagines a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway that will transport her to Vladivostok. The two are sustained by their dreams as much as by their love for each other.
Life changes irrevocably for the siblings in April 1940, when the Nazis invade their homeland. Jesper, a romantic leftist, quickly becomes involved in the Danish Resistance while Sistermine confronts the indignities and frequent brutality of life under the German occupation. What Petterson captures with transcendent subtlety is Sistermine's evolution from a shy and admiring younger sibling to a young woman, nourished by her abiding love for her older brother and steeled by the difficult blows life inflicts on her.
Petterson has acknowledged his debt to Raymond Carver, and taut prose reminiscent of the American short story master is evident in these pages. Both the harsh beauty of the Scandinavian world, from thick blankets of fog to ice-choked seas, and the inner lives of his characters are probed in language that doesn't waste a word.
In a 2007 interview with the Washington Post, Petterson acknowledged that To Siberia was an attempt to recreate his mother's early life. In this novel he has transformed that obsession into a vivid and poignant family drama.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.