Naming herself after the sour plums that grow from the spiky blackthorn, Sloe barely remembers the city where she grew up. Her earliest memory is of arriving at the dirty, unfriendly prison camp called the Settlement, a rundown collection of factories built in a cold, dark wilderness of perpetual blizzards in winter and muddy marshes in spring. But she doesn’t mind, as long as she has her mother to tell her wonderful stories of a beautiful place where wild animals run free under a warm sun. Sometimes, on cold evenings after the work quota for the day is finished, her mother would light the oil lamp, and under it’s warm, cozy glow, show her the secret magic. She would lovingly open a tiny nutshell containing six vials, and on these vials Mama’s magic would work. Soon, tiny little creatures with quivering noses and nailpin eyes would roll and tangle playfully about inside the little nutshell case, full of life and love, their tiny paws pressed against the glass dome of their little home. As Sloe grows up, she learns more about the secret, but she still doesn’t fully understand. Why did Mama insist on keeping it their secret only? And why did she have to spend so many hours memorizing a litany of foreign names for these little creatures, Insectivora, Lagomorpha, Rodentia, Chiroptera and Artiodactyla?
“One day,” says Mama, “maybe quite soon, or maybe years and years from now, when you are grown-up, it will be time to take them to the city…Not our city, another city. Where the sun always shines. It’s a long journey, hundreds of miles to the north and west, through the wilderness and the forest, through the forests to the sea, and across the ice to the other side”.
Sloe always imagined going on the trip with her mother and escaping the hopeless tired life of the Settlement, but she soon finds herself the sole guardian of the little creatures, and this faraway dream becomes a direction for her hope and the survival of both herself and possibly, the regeneration of life on earth itself.
I was really moved, disturbed, and hypnotized by this story. Sloe’s struggle to survive and find the truth of her mother’s words propel the story forward all the way to the last page of this story, in which I clamped the book shut with awe and content.
When I first picked this novel up, I assumed it was going to be a sort of Historical Fiction, possibly about WWII and the Holocaust. I didn’t read the jacket flap synopsis very closely so I didn’t pick up on the hints put there. I sort of took the book up on a whim. Now I want a copy! And I want more of Ann Halam’s work!
In Sloe’s world, there are no wild animals. Any ‘wild’ animal that populate the wildlands are scavengers, turned into deadly pests. Seagulls and rats abound, milling where there is any refuse, becoming serious dangers to contend with for anyone trying to surive in their territories. Other animals have long been domesticated and are harvested in factories for something specific. I read in mesmerized horror of the headless dog-animals of the fur factory who were grown and exercised until they were ready to be harvested. Because of the pollution and careless use of the earth’s resources, humans have depleted the world of any sustenance that could sustain life in the wilderness. Some even whisper that wild animals, if there still exist any, are quickly exterminated – eliminated in the competition for resources.
In a society so compartementalized and controlled by the government, it’s hard for anyone to scrape out a life for themselves that’s better than the one they were put into by the government. Everything is controlled and strictly guarded and watched by government officials, and all words spoken that could be used against the government are dully noted and the speaker quickly taken care of. Sloe herself is watched very closely and she is right in the middle of a big change that is slowly happening, a revolution of sorts, but she doesn’t know it.
There is a unique mixture of fairytale and science at play in this story that reminds me of favorites like Tanith Lee’s Claidi Journals (though this novel takes an entirely different approach). Because Sloe only ever had the bare minimum in education and because the place she lived was an environment where people cared more about day to day survival than proper education, she grew up sort of in awe of this scientific secret her mother made her keep and take care of, this secret that was like magic to her. Even when she grows up into a headstrong, intelligent young woman, the beautiful mystery of the nutshell case remained something to ponder over. Through the course of the book – as she grows up and leaves to another prison-like school, stumbles through early teenage years that slowly harden her pains and losses into bittersweet memories, falls into wrong hands, escapes, trudges through the vast landscape of a perpetual Siberia, narrowly flees from a strange pursuer – she slowly pieces together the truth and the importance of the mission her mama gave her long ago.
I read this novel all in one sitting, it was that compelling! It really had fairytale echoes in it, and I don’t want to say too much because I might give away some important parts of the plot. But, this novel was truly a gem! I’m so excited to have come across Ann Halam and I have a feeling that she has written more little treasure worlds that I can let my mind and imagination wander in. With adventure, fantasy, and a tale of a headstrong girl with her wits about her, Siberia is one of those novels that will fully transport you into a different world, keep your heart pumping, your eyes glued to the page and provide much food for thought!
For more information about Ann Halam, check out her website–
This post is in response to Caribousmom‘s “Random Reading Challenge”. Pick up a random book and start reading!
Rating: 4.5/5 Linquists