Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 356 pages; 2010. Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers.
There’s a Gothic, fairytale quality to Purge, the first novel by Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen to be translated into English. The novel has already been a bestseller in Europe and won three prestigous literary awards: the Finlandia, in 2008; the Runeberg, in 2009; and the Nordic Council Literature Prize, in 2010. I picked it up by chance while browsing in Foyles a couple of weeks ago, partly attracted by the stunning cover, but more enamoured of the writer’s credentials and the book’s unfamiliar setting.
And it is that setting — Estonia — which gives the story an unusual and decidedly different flavour to anything I’ve read before.
The story is a dark and disturbing one, hence the Gothic feel, and the two central characters — an elderly widow living on the edge of a forest, and the dirty, dishevelled woman she finds in her garden — have shades of Cinderella and her wicked step-mother about them.
But this is a story rooted in harsh reality, intertwining, as it does, the tale of the two women with Estonia’s troubled past. The narrative, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, focusses on key points in Estonian history: its occupation by German forces during the Second World War; its post-war Soviet occupation; and its eventual independence and entry into the European Union.
And so while the story lurches between war and peace, occupation and liberation, Communism and Socialism, we follow the paths of two women, 40-years apart, who are victims of horrendous crimes: Aliide Truu, the elder of the two, was brutally raped by Communist militia in the 1940s as part of an interrogation; Zara is on the run from the sex traffickers who have tortured and raped her in Berlin.
How have these women being shaped by their pasts? And why is Aliide a virtual prisoner in her own home, beset by villagers who pound her roof with stones every night? And is it true that Zara sought her out deliberately, and for what reason?
The story is littered with shame, small acts of cruelty and large, unforgivable betrayals.
What makes it such an effective and powerful read — aside from the themes of love, survival and treachery, and Oksanen’s brilliant characterisation — is the way in which the narrative is told in non-chronological bite-sized chunks, so that you have to hold fragments in your head in order to work out what is going on. This gives rise to moments of astonishment as pieces click into place and you begin to see how the events of the past are shaping the future.
I’m conscious of not giving too much away in this review, because it is one of those stories that needs to be read with as little background information as possible. All you really need to know is that these two women have tragic pasts, which collide in unexpected, unforeseeable ways. And while I don’t think it is a perfect novel — there are too many co-incidences to be believable, and Zara’s tale of escape tends towards the implausible — it is brimming with enough dark secrets to make it a real page turner.
And if you need further incentive to give this one a try, do read Savidge Reads‘ review — by sheer coincidence we both seem to have read this book at the same time.