When I was looking for books to read for August’s Women in Translation event, hosted by Meytal, I came across the name Sofi Oksanen. I had never heard of her, but she is a successful contemporary Finnish writer with two books translated into English: Purge and When the Doves Disappeared. I was really happy to discover that my library had the latter.
The story takes place in Estonia—a very unusual setting in my reading. It jumps back and forth between the early 1940s and the early 1960s. During World War II, Estonia was first invaded by Russia, then “liberated” by Nazi Germany, and then taken over again by Russia. Two oppressive regimes, with people fighting for an independent Estonia caught in the middle, provided the perfect setting for historical fiction. The murder mystery thrown in at the beginning seemed to be a perfect addition.
There is a lot to like in this book. There are times when the writing is wonderfully smooth. The oppression the characters feel jumps off the page. But still I didn’t like this book as much as I had expected. I felt that the beginning of the novel set up a story different from the one that was told.
The novel starts with four characters: Roland, a principled freedom fighter who hopes for an independent Estonia; his fiancée Rosalie, who can’t wait to marry him; Roland’s slippery cousin Edgar, who tags along with Roland but is interested only in his own advantages; and Juudit, Edgar’s wife and Rosalie’s friend. Based on the beginning, I was expecting a story about Roland and Rosalie, but I got a story about Edgar and Juudit instead. That in itself would not have been so bad, except Roland and Rosalie faded rather quickly and unexpectedly.
The story swerves from these two to Juudit when she falls in love with a German officer, abandoning herself to a passionate love affair. She fervently hopes that Germany will be successful in conquering Russia and that her husband won’t return from the front. The reader knows that Germany won’t succeed, so Juudit’s affair is doomed from the beginning. Plus, her husband does return, although he has no trouble abandoning his wife and taking on a new persona. First, Edgar changes from freedom fighter to Nazi collaborator, and later from Nazi to KGB propagandist. At times a bit nauseating, he is overall a bland character. That makes him perfect for blending in, but he also remains a bit sketchy. When I tried to picture him in my head, all I could see was a faceless man in ill-fitting gray clothes. Because of the jumps forward in time, I quickly knew how Juudit and Edgar end up. The tension of figuring out how they get there was well done, which was why I kept reading.
Unfortunately, at the end, there’s still Rosalie, Roland, and the murder mystery to take care of. I guessed Rosalie’s fate quickly, but what happened to Roland is treated so subtly that it could easily be missed. He was such a strong character at the beginning that it was hard to believe he would get lost in the novel. And the betrayal at the heart of the murder turned out to be such an essential part of the novel that I wished it had gotten more than a passing mention at the end.
Despite my misgivings, I would still like to read Purge, Oksanen’s other translated novel.