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I Always Went With Him

March 1, 2009
To Siberia

To Siberia

To Siberia
By Per Petterson
Transl. Anne Born

After the rush and pleasure of Out Stealing Horses, I was eager to read more from Petterson and so I made the rare move of buying this book, new and in hardback. I think it was worth it, it’s worth owning and keeping on one’s shelf, and I’ll give you six reasons why.

1. Petterson’s style. His writing is as clean and beautiful here as it was before, perhaps even more so. He is a master of the first-person narrative form and takes on the unique challenge of writing from a young girl’s voice. The first chapter of the book is mesmerizing. A line like this, so simple, but exactly what you need: “You could touch the air, like glass, and everything seems very close.”

2. The relationship between the anonymous narrator (she is only called “Sistermine” by her brother) and her brother, Jesper, the communist rebel. Their attachment is the focus of the story, which winds in and out of the historical context of pre- and post-WWII. Sistermine is a quiet, extremely introverted girl, sometimes she is too cold; Jesper is the only one who seems to ignite some life in her.

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. 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.

3. His historical setting, providing the vantage point of what WWII did to Scandinavia. It’s a perspective that, being an American not deeply educated in history, I had never really heard before. And I think it’s a story worth telling. Even if it isn’t, Petterson makes it so.

4. The odd acquaintance one develops with the narrator, Sistermine. Petterson creates a mood that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before with a first-person narrative; I felt like Sistermine was holding back, as if she was still keeping secrets from us. Even though it was her job to tell us the story, to tell us everything, at the end, I still felt like I barely knew her. She kept her distance from you and yet managed to be endearing.

5. Petterson has the gift of capturing an entire character in a word or in a glance. It’s a skill I envy. Whether he’s using Sistermine’s voice to describe the tension between her parents, the fervor of her uncle or the shyness of her red-haired lover, he catches them without error.

6. She never makes it to Siberia, but she takes you as far as she gets.

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