three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-To SiberiaTo Siberia, the second work of Per Petterson’s Scandinavian oeuvre, reaches the United States more than a decade after its initial publication, thanks in large part to the success of his first translated novel, Out Stealing Horses ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Sept/Oct 2007), a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2007 and winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Award.

The Story: To Siberia is the tale of a young woman coming of age in a poor fishing village in German-occupied Denmark during World War II. Told in two parts, Petterson’s story uses his protagonist’s desire for the expanses of Siberia, where "the houses are built of timber that gives off the good smell of tar and warmth in summer," as the unrealized dream through which those sections are linked. The protagonist is referred to only as "Sistermine," a pet name given her by her brother Jesper. The story revolves mostly around her memories of growing up with him by her side—and how she develops in his absence when he eagerly joins the resistance movement.
Graywolf. 256 pages. $22. ISBN: 1555975062

Dallas Morning News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"To call this a sad novel would be inaccurate and reductive: To Siberia succeeds in one of the greatest aims of fiction, to transport us to another time and place that makes us see our world with a clearer vision, and to recognize the similarities and differences of human nature, across time and distance." William J. Cobb

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Short and devastating, this luminous story confirms, if confirmation were needed, that Petterson’s restrained voice is piercing and powerfully recognizable. His low-key territory of fog, wind, ice and green water, where hearts are alive and alone, is not an easy one to dislodge from the memory." Elsbeth Lindner

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Petterson’s writing is so exact and piercing that, like poetry, it distills [Sistermine’s] experiences and feelings into imagery that is powerful beyond words. The effect is beautiful and moving, letting the reader connect with the character’s vitality and reflect on life with the same fullness and serenity that she does." Melissa Allison

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Against a chilly backdrop, the writing shimmers with a crystalline beauty. … The second part of the book is less compelling than the first." Kerri Westenberg

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In its best, most lucent moments, To Siberia evokes the same reflective grandeur that made Out Stealing Horses burn so brightly, with the memories this time coming from a 60-year-old woman whose present situation … is never revealed. … [It’s in] the ‘without Jesper’ section, that the novel slackens, along with Sistermine’s life." Jonathan Miles

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, the further the novel moves away from the sensuous childhood scenes in the first section or the chilling moments of resistance in the second, the more unsatisfying To Siberia becomes. Its blank emotional landscape and fragmented events are meant to convey the narrator’s aimless despair, and they certainly do, but as hard as I tried I couldn’t resist the conclusion that this book is just plain dull." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

With a penchant for crafting beautiful portraits of place, Petterson has once again hit his stride in To Siberia. Spot-on depictions of "Sistermine" growing up in the midst of war-torn Denmark at once rejuvenate and devastate as they successfully connect the reader with the evolving emotions driving the plot. Sistermine’s story is a sad one (though intermittently spotted with scenes of pure joie de vivre), and Petterson’s glimmering, universally praised writing ensures the reader feels that sentiment throughout. However, many critics felt that the second part of the book, which moves away from Sistermine’s childhood memories and into a darker, less sensuous account of her life without Jesper, lagged. In the end, To Siberia will resonate with readers either as piercing and powerfully moving or as just plain bleak and lacking a compelling plot.