Reading a book called To Siberia at this time of year in my barely heated home is an act of will, let me tell you, Flower. I won the book on a giveaway at Goodreads a couple of weeks ago. Excellent! Siberia has been sitting on my desk since it arrived like a shiny icicle beckoning to me.
One of the treasures of reading is the From Out of Nowhere Novelist of Distant Shores. It's a treasure because the 'sudden' success of the foreign author is usually only sudden in the English speaking world. In the native land of said author there has almost always already been a few books and success. In 2007 Per Petterson won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his excellent novel, Out Stealing Horses. Up to that book he had not been published in the U.S. The deserved success of that novel and the award lead his publisher to bring out one of his backlist (See! I told you that's how it works.) novels. To Siberia was originally published in in 1996 and here this past September.
Siberia is a dream destination in the novel. Our young, nameless narrator longs to go there on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She knows it will be very cold there but she will be warm because the people all wear furs. What draws her to Siberia is what she imagines to be Siberia's endless, clear plains. Her older brother Jesper, to who she is "Sistermine" the only name she has in the book, dreams of going to Morocco. Neither dream seems likely to come true at the start of the novel given that their family is living on a shoestring in the isolation of a small Danish seaside town in the years just before WWII.
The family is an extended, eccentric one. Grandpa is a roaring character with suicidal tendencies, Aunts and Uncles are variously prosperous, proper, grasping, fisherman's widows and factory workers. The parents of Sistermine and Jesper are the best but luckless hunchback carpenter for miles and a housewife hymn writer more married to her religion than her husband. With both of them distant and closed off, Jesper and Sistermine cling to each other for warmth and support. The relationship of brother and sister is the charm of the novel. They live in each others pockets. Together they have adventures, read and unite themselves to keep out their parents disappointments and expectations and the other children's happiness.
Time becomes the great intruder in To Siberia. The respite of childhood ends and Jesper and Sistermine come of age as WWII begins and the Nazi's take over their town and lives. Jesper and Sistermine both fight in their own ways. As the war escalates Jesper joins the Resistance and the separation of brother and sister begins. Jesper is forced to flee Denmark and the Gestapo and Sistermine is left to isolation and the realities of occupation. The rest of the novel details Sistermine's own flight from Denmark. As time passes and she moves from place to place always trying to save money to get further away from unhappiness and intolerance the thought of reuniting with Jesper is her only goal.
Petterson's writing is pristine. There is not a word out of place. As you read his novels you experience the lives he invents. His quiet but forceful prose demands your attention. He reminds me of Carol Shields in that way. When you open their novels you are going on a journey through their characters lives. That's good news. Better news? We will probably be seeing more of Petterson's older work over here.
Not chilly on the inside,