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Originally published Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"To Siberia": A life, and family, disrupted by Nazis

"To Siberia" by Per Petterson is the acclaimed Norwegian author's novel of a brother and a sister whose lives are altered when Nazis occupy their Danish village in World War II.

Special to The Seattle Times

"To Siberia"

by Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born

Graywolf Press, 256 pp., $22

Anyone who loved the quiet lyricism and deep emotional current of Per Petterson's acclaimed novel "Out Stealing Horses" will find more of the same in the U.S. release this month of "To Siberia," which was published in Petterson's home country of Norway in 1996 and in England in 1998.

"To Siberia" is the flashback of an older Danish woman remembering her youth during World War II. Known only as "Sistermine," an endearment from her brother Jesper, she grew up in a tiny coastal village with impoverished, self-absorbed parents.

The book centers on her close relationship with Jesper, who joins the local resistance movement when the Nazis take Denmark and arrive in their village. She interweaves memories of the heart-wrenching occupation, her family's hardships and her closeness to the older brother she adores.

She is bereft when Jesper must flee the country because of his political activities. Yet when the war ends, she does not wait for him to return home. Instead, she launches headlong into her adult life with a series of jobs, moves and quirky experiences that include losing her job as a telephone operator after inadvertently telling off the drunken king of Denmark.

When the caller asks whether she knows who he is, she replies, "Haven't a clue. But you've obviously had a couple of schnapps too many, so now I think you should go and lie down. Take a big glass of water and two aspirins on your way to bed. That's my advice. Goodbye."

The incident is an amusing snapshot of one woman's brush with the rich and powerful. As with most misfortunes in her life, she notices what is happening but does not get stuck there. In this case, she takes her unemployment as an opportunity to move to Stockholm to train as a glassblower.

Petterson's heroine is grounded by solitude and a solid awareness of her body. She relishes the strength and calm that come with vigorous walks, bicycle rides and swims, and sometimes stands in a room simply enjoying how her body feels.

"I stand in the middle of the floor distanced from all things and think I will always remember myself like this, alone on the black and white tiles in the yellow blouse and the semi darkness, and I raise my arms and stretch them out and slowly turn my body around," she remembers in one scene before the Gestapo disrupts her reverie.

"To Siberia" is rife with run-on sentences, offering almost stream-of-consciousness gazes into the protagonist's soul. Yet Petterson's writing is so exact and piercing that, like poetry, it distills her experiences and feelings into imagery that is powerful beyond its 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.


The title refers to the heroine's childhood longing to live in Siberia. Her brother pines for Morocco, and she pictures his dream more vividly than her own: "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."

When the story ends, she is a young woman facing hardship, but there are strong hints — including mentions of her life as an older woman — that she will be fine and life has just begun.

Melissa Allison is a Seattle Times business reporter.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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