There's something about this superb book that manages to make the work of most other travel writers seem contrived. Inspired it seems by the relatively pure motive of wanting to find out what Siberia is really like, Thubron ventures across the whole territory, and is so doing has fashioned a hard-to-put-down book that reveals a landscape and a people that are equally distinctive.
Thubron is adept at providing the necessary jaw-dropping statistics about the sheer size of the place when needs be. He is also equal to the task of evoking this landscape in many finely written passges. However, the number of pages devoted to geography and topography are dwarfed by the number of encounters with real people. This is no bad thing, since Thubron clearly has a talent for getting on with people and for engaging them in conversation, and in turn he is very skilled in drawing a revealing pen-portrait. Whether it's a man who claims to be directly descended from Siberian native Rasputin, or the Doctor tending to a decaying village of hopeless, hapless drunks in the far north, a survivor of the Gulag, or the KGB man turned Baptist preacher in Siberia's west, many of these people will stay in your memory. In the absence of any real answer to what Siberia is like, Thubron doesn't contrive to provide his own answers and instead reveals a lot more about the place by showing what effect it has had on some of the people who actually dwell there.
Overall, Thubron is sympathetic to these people and the region without being sentimental. He clearly respects the fortitude many of them show, and does them some kind of service by rendering so clearly the often harsh plights in which they find themselves. For Siberia is, he reveals, a place not only with an often dark past, but one that currently exists in an uncertain and (certainly in economic terms) troubled present. As another reviewer has pointed out, Thubron's take on Siberia might be overly negative given that it's informed purely by the places he went to and the people he met. However, I for one don't doubt that his account is faithful to what he personally experienced, and you really couldn't make some of this stuff up.
It comes across as a land of extrmes, then, but in this measured and memorable book at least you will find it a rewarding place to visit on the page, and will be glad of the chance to get beyond the few enduring popular cliches that cling to Siberia.