"Everything is glazed with a layer of shining ice," Per Petterson writes in "To Siberia," the second of the Norwegian author's novels to be published in America. The same could be said of Petterson's writing: Against a chilly backdrop, the writing shimmers with a crystalline beauty.
Like "Out Stealing Horses" -- Petterson's novel that won the international IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was named a New York Times Book Review Top 10 Book of 2007 -- this work coaxes readers into a sphere of loneliness with the precise prose and keen intellect of a masterful writer.
At the opening of the novel, translated from Norwegian by Anne Born, the unnamed narrator recounts her childhood fear of two stone lions that guard a manor house in her Danish village. She imagines them springing to life and chasing her down. As she grows up alongside her beloved older brother Jesper, it becomes clear that her harsh, stony world can muster much to fear that is real.
The family's economic situation spirals downward. Nazis occupy Denmark. Their hymn-singing mother is remote (she "lowers the blanket of hymn between herself and us") and their father is taciturn ("'Stop that, can't you!' he snaps and pulls me back in place roughly and this is the first thing he has said since we stepped out of the door in Asylgade.").
Amid the gloom, the loss of her brother hurts the narrator most deeply. She reveres his independence and relies on his love and companionship so much that early in the book, she declares, "There was no way I could live without him." After the Germans arrive, Jesper joins the resistance, eventually flees to Sweden and later lands in Morocco, a place he had long hoped to visit. ("Sistermine," as Jesper calls the narrator, had always dreamed of Siberia.)
The siblings' early years mark many of the book's most vivid scenes, including a moonlit romp around their grandfather's farm and Sistermine's first visit to a bar, escorted by Jesper.
When the two separate, the tone changes. The very night Jesper leaves, the narrator loses her virginity to a fisherman, who lets her stay on his boat so she won't get caught on the streets after the Nazi-imposed curfew. Then begins her ill-fated search for meaning that brings her to various Scandinavian locales and into the beds of various men, all the while longing for a reunion with her brother that never comes.
The book is essentially divided into those two parts: the coming of age and the separation. The second part of the book is less compelling than the first. Without the affecting interaction with Jesper, the narrator's life -- and the writing -- turns less poignant. But perhaps that is how it should be.
Sistermine remembers a time when her brother attempted to walk across the frozen sea to a distant island. "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 edge of the ice feeling empty."
Kerri Westenberg is the travel editor of the Star Tribune.