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.

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