‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen

Purge

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.

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13 thoughts on “‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen

  1. Wonderful review Kim. As we discussed in the flesh last week I couldn’t believe the ending and had to do some re-reading to make sure I had read what I had.
    I loved this book and hadnt really spotted the fairytale aspect, now you have pointed it out its as clear as day and makes even more sense that I should love it so. Interestingly I didnt spot the coincidences really, either that or I was so charmed I left those doubts behind me somewhere.
    It seems this isnt the only bit of random reading we have both had in common… spooky!!!

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  2. great review Kim ,Have this sitting near to of tbr pile since first heard of it earlies in the year ,think the writer her self is as interesting as the book ,all the best stu

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  3. If I hadn’t been sold already on this book then your opening line “There’s a Gothic, fairytale quality to Purge” would have done it!
    Coincidentally I coveted this book before either your or Simon’s review; my interest was piqued by a review in Marie Claire last month and I acquired a copy – a little weird that we were all attracted to this through different means…

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  4. I took a vacation where we went to Estonia a couple of years ago. Estonia and Finland are very close as the people have the same ethnic background. There are many boats back and forth between the two countries. ‘Purge’ sounds interesting.

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  5. I am also reading this but finding it very harrowing. However it is undoubtedly excellent – and its good to discover a new voice with real potential for once

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  6. I’m glad you didn’t give too much away 🙂 I picked up this book months ago and for some reason didn’t read it right away. Now I’m seeing glowing reviews of it all over the place, reminding me that I really must read it soon! Thank you.

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  7. Wow. I don’t know anyone who’s been to Estonia. What was it that made you go there? It sounds like such a fascinating place I wouldn’t mind checking it out myself at some point. If you have been to Estonia then I think it will only enrich your reading experience of this book, Tony, as you wouldn’t be digging around wikipedia (like I was) trying to comprehend the country’s history and working out who invaded who and what the relationship with Finland was like etc.

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  8. There’s something about this book that reminds me of Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, The Proof and The Third Lie but it’s not really about women though set in an Eastern European country during WWII and after. I’m curious and will look out for The Purge.

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  9. Hi Kimbofo,
    It was my wife’s idea to go to Estonia. Our main destination was St Petersburg where we saw all the incredible museums, then side trips to Estonia and Latvia. From Estonia, we took a boat across to Finland as a day trip. It was nice to get off the beaten path, and we stayed in nice places throughout. We were with a tour group.

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