To Siberia – Per Petterson

Being cold simultaneously conjures images of warmth; a fire to heat a frigid room, a sweater to keep out the chill. Yet it also, in Per Petterson’s novel To Siberia, is just as much of a character as any human is. The cold is persistent and something the narrator always pays attention to. The narrator is an unnamed woman looking back on her childhood in Denmark. Her name is never revealed, and the closest she gets to a name is the affectionate “Sistermine” that her brother Jesper refers to her by.

Their brother/sister bond is a large part of the narrative structure. The first half of the book demonstrates how strong their relationship is (and indeed, there is a cruel suggestion by a Gestapo officer that the two are incestuous).

Siberia seems like a welcome escape from her homeland. She often dreams of going there and in her imagination the country is a far more welcoming place.
Here everything is brickwork and cement. The water seeps in through the cracks and spreads in damp flowers through the wallpaper so it peels off and the kitchen floor is icy to the feet even in summer with the sun shining in. There is no glow in bricks. In Siberia the houses are built of timber that gives off the good smell of tar and warmth in summer, and when the long winter sets in the glow stays in the logs and never fades. The wood contracts and waits and stretches out when spring comes and drinks in the wind and the sun.
Nature and the natural elements are always of interest to Petterson. In his award-winning novel, Out Stealing Horses, the landscape plays an important part in the unfolding of the narrative, and this novel is no different in that regard.

Petterson’s writing is beautiful; he infuses the life of a girl on the brink of womanhood with lovely sentences that capture the awe of youth, as when he describes her in her parents store in the early morning:

I like this early half-light, the mild air from the sea, standing inside looking out without being seen, and there are almost no sounds from the street, and I can think and remember who I am before anything new comes along. Everything happens so fast it’s easy to forget, everything is exploding and burning. But now it is quiet.

When Jesper joins the resistance movement against the Nazi’s and has to flee the country. The narrator also leaves home but not until the end of the war. She travels, not to Siberia as she had hoped, but stays with different family members within Scandinavia. The last part of the book focuses on how lost she is without Jesper’s presence and her once fiery, intellectual spirit seems deflated. On the night of Jesper’s departure for Sweden (to avoid capture by the Nazis, Sistermine has her first sexual encounter with one of the fishermen helping with the escape plan. There is neither love nor passion in this act

I still don’t know the fisherman’s name, or if he is still alive, but I slept with him that night in his boat. It gave me no pleasure but he didn’t say “No thanks”, and then that was done.

This act begins a fairly regular pattern of Sistermine sleeping with random, unnamed men. She becomes pregnant from her last encounter and is aware of the fact immediately after she wakes, the morning after she has had sex. She begins to caress her belly frequently, unaware she is doing so. The book ends on what has been described as an ambiguous note:

“I am twenty three years old, there is nothing left in life. Only the rest.”

I take this as a hopeful moment and find it to be a powerful sentence.

Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg

Hurry Down Sunshine is a remarkable book. It is the type of book I want to tell everyone about: “You should read this book. Now!”

During the summer of 1996, on July 5th to be exact, Greenberg’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Sally, suffers a profound crack in her being which spirals into manic psychosis. This father makes a very difficult decision to commit his daughter to a psychiatric hospital for very needed treatment but struggles with why and how this happened.Hurry Down Sunshine offers a very intimate glimpse of a common psychiatric syndrome delivered from an uncommon perspective. In doing so, Greenberg illuminates an arena of collateral damage of mental illness that often eludes societal concern. The book is a two month segment of the life of a writer immersed in problems endemic to many—career, housing, finances, a first then a second marriage, children and several generations of troubled family, all suddenly up-ended by a mental illness as familiar and incomprehensible as if it were his own.

Sally, the quirky, brilliant 15-year-old daughter from his first marriage (to Robin), was transformed overnight into an angry stranger exploding with kaleidoscopic energy, her speech shattered like dropped glass. The story, in addition to being a heart-wrenching account of the brilliant burst and fall-out fading of a full-blown mania, records the desperate efforts of the author to hold the center of his life, manage the crisis, and quench his intense thirst to understand what was happening. The author’s obsession with etiology ranges the expanse from bad parenting to drug abuse, genetics, nutritional deficiency, a rare force of nature like a blizzard or flood, offenses to God, misaligned spirituality, a bad throw of the dice, and back to bad parenting. The question “Why?” can never really be fully answered in Greenberg’s case, nor, I suspect in the case of most people suffering and living with the same disease.

Greenberg broods under the shadow of the psychiatric affliction of his dysfunctional, nearly homeless brother, Steve, as well as his readings on mental illness in writers and their families: Robert Lowell’s wild mood swings; Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter, who killed herself while reading one of his books – one day before the anniversary of Hemingway’s own suicide; and James Joyce, who mirrored the author’s preoccupation with a psychotic daughter. They shared the initial belief that oddness reflected the growing pains of a very gifted child, but as Joyce’s Lucia became chronically paranoid, he mercilessly blamed himself. He squandered years and a fortune seeking remedies, which included consultation with Carl Jung and an expensive fur coat believed to possess healing powers. Lucia’s only evidence of being in touch with reality occurred at his funeral, where she pronounced her father an idiot.

Sally had been an infant without serenity. She rejected Robin’s breast at two months and was a thrasher, gripper, and yanker of fingers, hair and ears, relentlessly propelling herself away from her parents. Later, she craved reassurance but always rejected it. In school she was found to have a serious learning disorder, yet her deftness with puns and wit, coupled with sheer determination, revealed a bewildering intelligence. Sally was only eleven when her parents divorced, and several years of shuffling between them, rebellious acting out, and school problems ensued. As Sally ages, a stint of special education seemed to be succeeding and things at home, living with her father and step-mother, Pat, seemed more settled. The mania erupted like a sudden storm. Sally suffered a truly harsh psychosis based on the belief that everyone is born a genius and it is her role to reveal this truth. Beyond the uncontrolled explosions of speech and action common to her illness, Sally had none of the ebullient expansiveness usually seen. Her pressured speech was wry and negative, tinged with paranoia, replete with delusions and, it is revealed later, auditory hallucinations.

While in hospital, Sally initially disappears behind locked doors and into isolation rooms without explanation or comment from a seemingly harsh hospital staff who regard the author for weeks on end as a bothersome intruder entitled neither to consolation nor information. Doctors mostly explained too little too quickly, thus mystification reigned for much too long. Eventually bonds of understanding are formed and Sally very slowly begins to emerge from the ruins of her mania.

The story also details how severe illness stresses the family. Sally’s mother, Robin, crowded into the scene, adding her anti-medical bias to the mix of confusion and worry. Tension with his second wife, Pat, finally led to a nasty marital fight, which rebounded with a reconciliation so sincere it engendered a pregnancy. The author’s mother and brothers, each on their own, felt obliged to contribute idiosyncratic cross-currents of counsel, adding more drag to the author’s effort to keep his nose above water.

The tide didn’t turn until well into Sally’s second month of illness, and recovery proceeded like sludge. But one evening the author perceived a slight shift in the air and quite unexpectedly Sally leaned against him and said, “You and Pat saved my life. It must have been hard for you.” The miracle of normalcy and ordinary existence had descended upon them. Sally was back, and she was able to return to school that fall not fully asymptomatic, but functional. In a postscript, we learn that she graduated from high school with honors, but shortly thereafter became ill again. Two years later, she entered a marriage that lasted only three years and at last report available to the reader, she was living and working near her mother in the country. We depart this eloquently told tale, yet unfinished, in hope and worry with her father.

You should read this book. Now!