Per Petterson’s To Siberia is dark and lyrical. It was written a decade before Out Stealing Horses, one of my favorite reads of 2007. The fine translation is by Anne Born, a poet, translator and publisher.
The story is told by a women of 60 looking back at the beginning of her life. Growing up in northern Denmark, in a family of detached adults, she and and her brother, Jasper , become very close. They spend much time together, tease each other, wonder the beach and the town, and dream of getting away. Their lives are interrupted by World War Two, Denmark is invaded by the Germans and their dreams disappear.
Petterson uses language that bring the harsh northern landscape to life. His words are poetic and he is able to express the thoughts and feelings of the female narrator in ways that I find extraordinarily honest and direct. While reading this novel I saw the beginnings of the style and craft that blossomed into Petterson’s later work.
From page 9: The attic at the farm was icy cold and usually half in darkness with only one paraffin lamp I had to turn off as soon as I had gone up the stairs. There was a small window on the east side and a bed under the window and kneeling on it I could talk to Jasper in the evenings when it was summertime and look out at the stars in the winter and a spruce hedge and a Chinese garden from another world and then just rolling hills right out to the sea. Sometimes I would wake up under the coarse heavy duvet thinking I had heard the sea filling the room and I opened my eyes and it was just as dark as when I shut them again. The darkness lay close to my face and I thought, it doesn’t make any difference whether I can see or not. But there was a difference, and I would be frightened, for the darkness was big and heavy and full of sounds and I knew if I did not shut my eyes quickly I would be smothered. But when I wasn’t frightened it was like being lifted up to float in space with a wind through my heart.