Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 248 pages; 2008. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born.
Prize-winning Norwegian novelist Per Petterson has become one of my favourite authors in recent years.
His much-lauded Out Stealing Horses, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2006 and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007, and the less well-known In the Wake, which won the Brage Prize in 2000 (before it was translated into English), are both beautiful but devastating reads. To Siberia, first published in 1996 but only recently translated into English, is similarly exquisite.
This one is set in a provincial town in Jutland, Denmark, almost “as far as it was possible to travel from Copenhagen and still have streets to walk along”. It opens in the 1930s and is narrated by a young girl growing up on a farm with her elder brother, Jesper, whom she adores because “he does things that are original”, a devoutly Christian mother, a carpenter father and a hard-working, hard-drinking grandfather.
There is little plot of which to speak, although the story could be loosely described as a coming-of-age tale, because we follow our unnamed narrator from a shy six-year-old, scared of the stone lions on a neighbour’s property, to a 20-something emotionally embittered woman embarking on a life of her own. (Confusingly, the first person narrative is told from her perspective as a 60 year-old looking back on her life.)
The picture that emerges over the course of time is one largely of hardship as her father “works his way downwards”, moving the family into a cramped flat over a dairy when he is shut out from his parent’s farm. Here she must share a bedroom with Jesper (later, she is shocked to learn there are rumours they sleep together) and is told by her mother that she “broods too much”.
Sustaining her through this pinched existence are her dreams of Siberia, a place she longs to visit with “a sky and a light as from the dawn of the world”, and the love for her brother, a ribald, daring character, who later joins the resistance movement when the Nazis invade Denmark.
Later, as a young adult, she moves to Copenhagen and then drifts from Stockholm to Oslo, and fills her days working, first as a telephone operator and later a waitress, and ekes out her nights in grim promiscuity. There is a definite sense of loss, of melancholia, of deep aching sadness, perhaps best described by the absence of Jesper in her life:
He has gone to Morocco, and I have come to this town at the very end of the
fjord where everything was gray and green on the way in on the boat,
and then nothing but gray for days and weeks.
The ending is an unbearably sad one, typical of Petterson’s previous novels, and even writing this review, some three weeks after having read the book, my throat aches with the thought of it. To Siberia is a beautiful, bleak novel, one that makes you see the world in a slightly different light after you reach the final page.
As an aside, I loved reading about a part of the world with which I am vaguely familiar, especially the township of Skagen, which nestles on the northern-most tip of Jutland. Petterson’s descriptions are particularly evocative, although I have no experience of a cold so bitter it freezes the sea. You can see my own photographs of the region here and here and here.