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Reflections of a working writer and reader



To Siberia by Per Petterson – Book review

Per Petterson’s stunning fourth novel, Out Stealing Horses, translated by Anne Born, won the Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize. To Siberia is the author’s second novel, published in 1998 and also translated by Anne Born.

To Siberia opens with the narrator, a little girl of six or seven, and her brother, Jesper, on the coast of North Jutland where they live with their parents and extended family. The novel moves quickly forward and we are soon in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War and looking forward to the chaos and horror of the Nazi era.

Jesper has a fantasy of Morocco, while his sister can think only of Siberia:

Jesper was heading for Morocco. That would be too hot for me. I wanted open skies that were cold and clear, where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances, but his pictures were mysterious and alluring in black and white with barren mountains in the far distance and sun-scorched faces and sun-scorched towns behind battlemented walls and fluttering tunics and palm trees that suddenly rose out of no-man’s-land.
“I’ll get there if I want to,” said Jesper. “And I do want to.” He looked at the pictures and maps in his book and read aloud:
“Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Kasba.” He shaped his mouth to the vowels and held onto them and in his voice they turned into magic spells and we promised each other that this was something we would achieve. He fetched a knife and we made cuts in our hands and mixed the blood that had been mixed before, but now it would be like a circle, said Jesper.
We stood in the shed behind the house holding each other’s hands, it was almost too solemn, Jesper did not laugh as usual, my palm hurt, and I could hear the rain on the corrugated iron roof and in the trees outside and beyond the rain was a silence so huge it filled the whole of Denmark.

Our narrator is a sixty-year-old woman recollecting her life as a child fifty years earlier. Disoriented by the events of the Nazi occupation and her brother’s involvement in the resistance movement, after the war she moves to Copenhagen, to Stockholm and Gothenburg and to Oslo, eventually returning to her home town when she is still in her early twenties.

Per Petterson is concerned with suffering and death and with the way that seemingly innocuous events in a young life become magnified and iconic in the adult. In a languorous and yet understated prose he examines the minutia of everyday events, watching as they build to a crippling finale.

This Norwegian writer is really something special and I shall be looking out for more of his novels.

6 Responses to “To Siberia by Per Petterson – Book review”

  1. kimbofo says:

    I loved ‘Out Stealing Horses’ (thanks for the link) so I’ll definitely be adding ‘To Siberia’ to my wish list. I especially like that it is set in North Jutland, a place I know well, the light and the scenery there is just amazing.

    jb says: Yes, I loved it, too. And I’m sure you’ll enjoy To Siberia. Let me know when you’ve read it.

  2. willgaylin says:

    I, too, was impressed by “Out Stealing Horses” and have, only moments ago, completed reading “In the Wake”. It is an astonishing novel. Despite a mediocre translation –more suitable for an English than American publication — and much bad copy editing, this short novel creates a world of its own, in a voice truly unique, that would make this writer a great novelist if it had been the only novel he had written. Would love for a major publisher to put a a first rate editor and translator to work and bring to American audiences anything else this extraordinary talent has produced. A shattering and joyous read. wg

    jb says: Thanks, Will. I’ve ordered a copy already. I can’t believe the translation is as bad as you say. Anne Born is the same poet who translated his other novels, and they were some of the best translations I’ve read. But we’ll see. Thanks again for pointing me in the direction of something I really want to read.

  3. iwannafly says:

    anyone know where i can pick up a copy of to siberia. been looking everywhere and no one has a sniff of it…. out of print long ago..

    jb says: have one, but it’s £240.00.

  4. […] get devastated. But I just reviewed a new book in the New York Times by a Norwegian writer named Per Petterson. His book is called Out Stealing Horses, and it’s a great book. It sold more than 230,000 […]

  5. linda shallash says:

    I have just finished reading To Siberia and I wish there were translations of other books by this author. I also read Out Stealing Horses.

    jb says: I loved it, too, Linda. Both of them.

  6. David J Carne says:

    To Siberia sounds like a very good read and something I will be pursuing shortly perhaps a Christmas present I think.

    jb says: Great choice for a Christmas gift, David. I hope you enjoy it.