Sometimes when I think of Jesper all I can see is his dark back on the way across the white sea to Hirsholmene. It gets smaller and smaller and I stand at the end of the ice feeling empty. Why didn’t he ask me to go with him? I have a will of my own, but if he had asked I wouldn’t have hesitated. I always went with him. After all, I had to look after him and he had to look after me, and my father would have been furious with us both. Staying there alone was meaningless.
Although she insists that she has a will of her own, the heroine and first-person narrator of Per Petterson’s To Siberia will follow her brother Jesper anywhere because “he does things that are original and I like that.” She climbs out the window and onto the roof of their home on the Danish seaside to follow him to an unknown destination in the middle of the night. She pulls him out of the water when he jumps in and gets held under by the weight of his boot. She listens to his fantasies about moving to Morocco and shares with him her dreams of moving to Siberia, where the people have houses and clothes that protect them from the elements. Jesper is the center of her life, so much so that when telling her story, the heroine nevers refers to herself by name, only by the name that Jesper gives her: “Sistermine.”
In To Siberia, the 60-year-old “Sistermine” looks back over her early life and young adulthood, sharing memories as they occur to her. She tells of her early job delivering milk, of a few friends and family members, of the Nazi occupation of her town, and of the jobs and lovers she takes on in her early adulthood. We know little about her present-day life, and some of the details of her earlier life remain sketchy. We do know that as a child she was strong, independent, intelligent, and curious about the world but that the circumstances of her life were almost unceasingly bleak.
One of the best things about the book is the descriptive writing. The book is written in the present tense, which gives each incident immediacy. Sistermine records what she observed and how she felt at each moment without much reflection on the meaning of each incident or how it ties in with the larger story of her life. As I read, I could see the landscapes, smell the air, and feel the strength in the calf muscles that comes from hauling around heavy crates of milk on a bicycle. I could also feel Sistermine’s emotions as she watches her brother sleep:
I walk forward and put the books on the floor beside the mattress and he does not wake up, just breathes evenly so I can feel it on my face. I stay there standing over him, a long time perhaps, and cannot make myself straighten up. My back will not obey, it hurts from my neck down and heat spreads in my hips, and then I start to cry. I cry as quietly as I can, for I am afraid he will get tears on his face, afraid he will wake up and see me looking at him and my chest hurts when I cry and hold it in at the same time . . . I fill my head with thoughts till it feels purple and hot like the glowing iron at the blacksmith’s forge while I stand bent over my naked brother weeping because he is beautiful as pictures I have seen in books of men from other times, grown men, and if I could remember why I came out to find him, it would not mean anything now. He is not the same anymore, cannot be and his am around my shoulder will never be the same again.
The narrative itself is generally chronological, but it meanders around in place and time. As I’ve mentioned before, I often don’t like this kind of stream-of-consciousness style, but here it works because the narration operates as memories do. You can understand why the telling of one story would lead Sistermine to recall a much earlier incident. Some readers might become impatient with the fact that Sistermine doesn’t always share what seem like important facts about what is happening and why. For me, it wasn’t a major problem because once I got used to the fact that this book is a book of memories, not a story, I could accept the fuzziness of the narrative. Sistermine’s tale is really a tour of the bleak emotional landscape of her life, with occasional bursts of ephemeral joy. It probably won’t make it onto my list of favorites for the year, but I’m glad I read it.
See another review at Reading Matters.