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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


To Siberia

Per Petterson

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To purchase To Siberia

Title: To Siberia
Author: Per Petterson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 248 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: To Siberia - US
To Siberia - UK
To Siberia - Canada
To Siberia - India
Jusqu'en siberie - France
Sehnsucht nach Sibirien - Deutschland
I luoghi più lontani - Italia
A Siberia - España
  • Norwegian title: Til Sibir
  • Translated by Anne Born

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Our Assessment:

A- : effective, though perhaps with a feeling of too many loose ends

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 9-11/2008 John Freeman
FAZ A 2/10/1999 Hanns-Josef Ortheil
The New Yorker . 20/10/2008 Jeffrey Frank
The New Yorker . 10/12/2012 James Wood
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/6/2010 Tim Parks
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/10/2008 Jonathan Miles
TLS . 9/10/1998 Paul Binding
The Washington Post C+ 28/9/2008 Ron Charles
Die Welt A 3/4/1999 Peter Urban-Halle

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Petterson deftly calibrates his narrator’s Holly Golightly naïveté, using it to bracket the Nazi invasion of April 9, 1940, within the penumbra of a young woman’s self-regard. (...) To Siberia is an odd coming-of-age story. The pinch of its narrator’s near penury and family psychodrama has a jagged authenticity, but the descriptions of the town and her routines there are so elegantly cast, it’s not entirely clear whether the narrator, who looks back on her youth from the vantage of age sixty, is aware of her own nostalgia." - John Freeman, Bookforum

  • "Melancholie in so langsam erzählten Romanen kann eine sehr kitschige Erpressung sein, Per Petterson umgeht diese Gefahr, bis auf einige sehr dick aufgetragene Schlusssequenzen. Sonst aber stellt er Melancholie dadurch her, dass er die Gegenwart seiner Ich-Erzählerin so ins Bild setzt, dass unterschwellig die Vergangenheit mitschwingt. (...) Weil man diesen großen Roman nicht verlassen will, nicht so, nicht so enttäuscht, ertappt man sich dabei, dass man von vorne zu lesen beginnt." - Hanns-Josef Ortheil, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Given his narrators' constant efforts to foresee and foretestall, it's not surprising that Petterson is an extremely careful writer and his books are meticulously constructed, full of parallelisms that sometimes seem to border on contrivance." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "In its best, most lucent moments, To Siberia evokes the same reflective grandeur that made Out Stealing Horses burn so brightly, with the memories this time coming from a 60-year-old woman whose present situation -- unlike that of Trond Sander, the narrator of Out Stealing Horses, whose accounts of household doddering acted as a pressure valve on the crush of his remembrances -- is never revealed. Even her name goes unmentioned. Unlike Trond, then, she is nothing but the past" - Jonathan Miles, The New York Times Book Review

  • "To Siberia is written in language that is clear, rhythmic, and often evocative (.....) Petterson could be labelled a "prose stylist," except you never feel that he is styling anything; you feel that he is simply setting down sentences, unaffected by slang and hip foreign expressions. (This comes through remarkably well in the faithful translations of Anne Born.) His plots unfold much as life does, taking unexpected turns that force the author to confront destiny’s hazards." - Jeffrey Frank, The New Yorker

  • "The narrator of To Siberia, re-creating her Danish youth in northern Jutland, vividly captures that unease which undercuts the adolescent's sense of expanding physical powers, in the first encounters with the indomitable realities of pain and death. Writing with hindsight, Petterson's heroine can place in context the most turbulent scene, the seemingly endless claustrophobia of certain situations -- an unhappy family, a country occupied by an enemy power -- with her adult knowledge of the laws of mutability." - Paul Binding, Times Literary Suppement

  • "Unfortunately, the further the novel moves away from the sensuous childhood scenes in the first section or the chilling moments of resistance in the second, the more unsatisfying To Siberia becomes. Its blank emotional landscape and fragmented events are meant to convey the narrator's aimless despair, and they certainly do, but as hard as I tried I couldn't resist the conclusion that this book is just plain dull." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

  • "Daß es für alles allerdings Gründe gibt, das ahnt man nur. Diese Begründungen bleiben im Vagen, man muß sich zu ihnen hindenken, und das macht Pettersons Roman geheimnisvoll und poetisch. Zur Gewißheit kommen die Leser über das Unausgesprochene, und daran liegt es wohl, daß die Gewißheit weder durch Kitsch noch Schwarz-Weiß-Malerei zu haben ist. (...) Dieses Buch steckt voller Überraschungen, ohne daß wir den Überblick verlören; voller Freuden, ohne daß das Melancholische zu kurz käme. Freudevoll und melancholisch ist eben auch das Hauptmotiv, die Beziehung der Ich-Erzählerin zu ihrem geliebten Bruder Jesper." - Peter Urban-Halle, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       To Siberia is a vaguely retrospective account, describing a Danish girl's life from when she was six or seven until she's twenty-three, in the 1930s and 1940s. It is an adult narrator looking back on her childhood and youth, but the voice and the perceptions largely correspond to the age she was when the episodes she describes take place, an almost willful naïveté and innocence imposed on the narrative, a refusal to explain what is now obvious but which the child could not entirely fathom.
       The household she grows up in is humble, her mother a devout hymn-singing (and composing) Christian, her father a carpenter -- and: "though it may be true that my father is the best joiner in town he is not the best at making nmoney. He has so many acquaintances, the town is too small for a professional." Most significantly, there is her older brother, Jesper, an independent-minded rabble-rouser whom she venerates.
       The siblings dream of distant places: she wants to travel to Siberia, while Jesper's ambition is to get to Morocco. To Siberia describes her youth and adolescence and early adulthood, in times and circumstances of little certainty where even small ambitions -- like continuing with school -- are too easily dashed. Physically strong, a good student, an eager reader, she doesn't fit in particularly well; her only true friend is her adored brother, who is driven by the ambition of seeing the workers triumph, eager to charge into the fight against capitalism.
       Life is hard in the small town, and when the Nazis invade is even more limited. Jesper more readily finds purpose in fighting the new enemy, but it necessitates him fleeing, too (and , yes, he does wind up in Morocco). His sister meanwhile stumbles along at home, then runs away to the big city as soon as she can.
       There's an aimlessness to her life, as she lets herself be thrown about by fate, unwilling or unable to find anyone to complement her in the way her brother did. She sleeps with some men, but almost out of a sense of it being less trouble than refusing them. The book closes with her completely dispirited:

I remember thinking: I'm twenty-three years old, there is nothing left in life. Only the rest.
       To Siberia isn't a detailed, introspective memoir. The narrator skips along, focussing in on specific episodes and only occasionally musing on situations (her parents' unlikely-seeming marriage, for example), compressing the formative years as one might from decades later in life, the vividly recalled surrounded by large gaps. They're appealingly recounted and often evocative episodes, simple but powerful even where seemingly everyday: the character -- and her relationship with her brother -- come across fully realised, and convincingly. Still, there's a feel of loose ends here, of too much unaccounted for: the books feels like it is enough for her, who told it, but also like there are things being kept from the outsider -- the reader.
       To Siberia is a reading-pleasure, a haunting little story -- though one is left feeling that ultimately not quite enough has been said.

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To Siberia: Reviews: Per Petterson: Other books by Per Petterson under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Per Petterson was born in 1952.

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© 2007-2012 the complete review

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