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 parents—a skilled but unsuccessful carpenter father and a devoutly religious mother—are 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.