Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review: To Siberia, by Per Petterson

I am a big fan of Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, and I wanted to like To Siberia just as much.  Unfortunately, it didn't happen.

To Siberia was Per Petterson's second novel, written in 1996.  It was translated into English and published in the U.K. in 1998; however, it only made its way to the United States in 2008, following the success of Out Stealing Horses, the author's fifth novel.

Like Out Stealing Horses, To Siberia is a novel of memories -- in this case, the memories of an unnamed woman in her twilight years, remembering her childhood in Denmark and her subsequent young adulthood.  The first half of the book is riveting, particularly in its descriptions of her relationship with her older brother.  He is a daredevil and a budding political activist; she looks up to his every move.  Both wish to escape the suffocating life of the small port town where they live and their domineering, devoutly religious mother.  He hopes to find his way to Morocco; she dreams of going to Siberia.

Then comes World War II and the German occupation.  Her brother defies the Nazis one time too many and is forced to escape from the country.  She stays behind, finding work first as a phone operator and later at a variety of humdrum jobs in various northern European countries.  It is in the second half where the book seriously loses steam.  She wanders around Northern Europe aimlessly, limited by her meagre funds.  She passively lets men (and one woman) use her for sex, from which she derives no apparent enjoyment.  I have no doubt that there are people whose lives are as empty as hers.  But Per Petterson offered me no reason to be interested in this life.  Did she finally make it to Siberia?  By the end, I didn't care.  

Nevertheless, the time spent reading To Siberia was not entirely wasted.  The writing is beautiful, even if it is frequently unflinching and bleak.  As such, I still look forward to reading It's Fine By Me, the author's first novel.  But while those who consider themselves fans of Petterson's other novels may want to give To Siberia a try, others should probably pass.

Related Posts:
Per Petterson: It's Fine By Me

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