To Siberia by Per Petterson

In To Siberia, Petterson’s dark vision reasserts itself in a haunting story about a Danish woman and her beloved brother.

The narrator, whose name we never learn, relates her story from the present moment: early on, we learn she is 60 and hasn’t seen her brother, Jesper, for half her life. She then shifts to the past, into their frightening, unhappy childhood. Their father, Magnus, is a carpenter, barely scraping by; their mother, also unnamed, is a deeply religious woman fond of composing hymns. Both ignore the children, who run wild through their tiny Danish town, “almost as far as it was possible to travel from Copenhagen and still have streets to walk along”.

In this hamlet the cold is nearly perpetual, the winds often blinding. But Jesper gamely leads his younger sister through the streets, seeking adventure: sleeping with their grandfather’s cows, peering into the bar where their grandfather and father are drinking, leading to an acrimonious father-son fight. “Sistermine”, as Jesper calls her, is no coward, even as a youngster. Day or night, she follows her brother everywhere.

The children exchange their grandiose dreams. Jesper longs for North Africa, with its exotic place names and undulant heat. “Morocco!” he cries, his fingers tracing maps. His sister, conversely, longs for Siberia. Despite being told of its labor camps and cruelty, she envisions endless cold plains and wide pale skies. Her dreams are as devoid of humanity has her brother’s are peopled with men swathed in robes against a merciless sun.

As the children reach young adulthood, the family’s fortunes decline. Magnus, greatly in debt, is forced to close his carpentry business. The entire family goes to work in a dairy, inhabiting the tiny living quarters above the shop. The adolescent siblings must share a closet-sized bedroom, where Jesper hangs pictures of Lenin. As his political awareness grows, he begins staying out later at night, attending meetings, defying Magnus, who expects him to work in the shop.

When Jesper runs away, it is the narrator who takes on the morning milk deliveries, the heavy bicycling making the already robust young woman even stronger. She is not, her mother notes with dismay, a fair-haired Danish girl; rather, she is short, strong, and possessed of unruly, curling dark hair. She also has the highest marks in school, and hopes to attend Gymnasium. But that is not to be.

Though the Danes do their best to evade the inevitable, the terrible day comes: 29 August 1943. The Germans roll ashore, guns pointing. Jesper and the narrator watch them from a hilltop, unseen. Jesper sobs in despair, but soon dries his tears and takes action, leaving word for his sister: the two see each other a final time before he joins the Resistance.

The narrator stays in her hometown during the war, maintaining a stalwart, stoic attitude, stubbornly courageous even as a local Nazi sympathizer attacks her, demanding to know Jesper’s location. By the time the war ends, she has fled as far as her money will take her: Copenhagen. From Copenhagen she moves to Stockholm, a brief, unpleasant experience, finally landing in Norway, where she stays with her Aunt Kari, waitressing in her cafe.

She is a loner, reading a great deal, walking much, sleeping with men but otherwise indifferent to them, never so much as staying the night. She makes no friends. An older Norwegian who frequents Kari’s cafe becomes enamored of her, coming in for meals he cannot afford until she finally agrees to spend the night with him.

After their lovemaking, the couple falls asleep, and she dreams of Siberia, of Jesper, of her grandfather’s half-wild horse, Lucifer. In the dream, Jesper, also on horseback, is waving and calling to her, but she cannot hear him clearly. On waking she departs early, abandoning her new lover as he sleeps, an act with lasting ramifications. More important, though, is the letter waiting for her back at Kari’s cafe. Jesper, who finally reached Morocco, is coming home. The narrator eagerly returns to Denmark, finding only cold parents who refuse her entry, forcing her to find lodgings at a relative’s home on the island of Læsø.

The novel ends abruptly, elegiacally; not expecting to finish it so suddenly, I found myself thinking of Caitlin Thomas’s Leftover Life to Kill, her memoir of life with husband Dylan Thomas: the title has always struck me, for what is left of life when one’s most beloved is lost? And how does one conduct that leftover life, as Sistermine must, when her most beloved is lost before she is even 30? Petterson offers no simple answers. Instead, as he did in Out Stealing Horses, he leaves us bearing the weight of the past, with only the freezing path before us.

RATING 8 / 10