When the Doves Disappeared, Sofi Oksanen

DovesWhen 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.

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19 comments

  1. What a fun event! I’d also like to read more translated fiction. Right now, I’m mostly focused on reading the books I already own, but next year, I’m going to make translated fiction one of my top priorities.

  2. Oh, I recommend you check out the Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s books starting with My Brilliant Friend, they have really moved into the mainstream and are an utterly gripping portrayal of friendship between two girls growing up in a tough neighbourhood of Naples.

    A few other fabulous translated books I’ve read and reviewed this year:

    The Wall by Marlen Hauhofer (German)
    Ru by Kim Thuy (Vietnamese Canadian)
    The Presidents Hat & The Red Notebook by Antoin Laurain (French)
    The Yellow Rain by Julio Llamazares (Spanish)
    Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras (Argentinian Spanish)

    And a wonderful classic from Spain by a women writer is Nada by Carmen Laforet.

  3. I have a copy of Purge to read this summer for #WITMonth and was interested to discover, when reading an earlier review of When the Doves Disappeared that it is in fact part of a trilogy, although each book can be read separately. However, the first book in the trilogy has not been translated into English.

    About half the books I read now are translated fiction and I follow quite a few people on twitter and blogs who read it too, the best way to find out more about what is good and available. Thanks to the last Man Booker International Prize, I am now onto my second book by Mayse Condé whose work I am really enjoying, she is from Guadelope, so its translated from French, I read first her stories of childhood and now am onto her novels. I also joined a goodreads group called Around the World, which is a great place to see what’s available and what’s being read. Roll on Women in Translation Month!

    • I had no idea Oksanen’s novels are a trilogy. I hope someone will translate the first one. I’m looking forward to your review of Purge.
      Your posts about the MB International Prize were really interesting, especially since I was unfamiliar with all the authors except for one. I’ve started reading the Three Percent blog to get an idea of good translated fiction, and I’ll have to check out the Goodreads group.

  4. I have a copy of this but haven’t picked it up yet – I think part of me is afraid that I won’t like it and I just LOVE the cover so much that I want to keep that pretty book untainted on my shelves.

    • The cover IS really pretty (although the bird reminds me of a crow rather than a dove). There’s much to like in this book; it just wasn’t exactly right for me. I hope you’ll like it better!

  5. It’s very interesting to see your views on this book. Funnily enough, I read Sofi Oksanen’s Purge a few years ago, and while I enjoyed it as a thriller, it didn’t make a lasting impression on me. I don’t know whether you’d like it or not, it’s hard to tell…

    • That’s how I felt about this one, although it’s not a thriller. It was mostly good, but I don’t think it has made a lasting impression. I’m thinking about having my mom read Purge and then tell me what she thinks. And then maybe lend me the book… 🙂

  6. This was a great review! I’ve read both Doves as well as Purge and, rest assured, they are very different from one another. I personally prefer this one, but I know many who absolutely adore Purge and consider it to be better constructed and a more cohesive.

    • It’s interesting to hear your opinion. Looking at the reviews on Goodreads, it seems like people like either this book or Purge, but rarely both. As I said, there was much to like here, it just didn’t quite work for me. But I’m curious to read more by Oksanen.

  7. I would love to read more translated fiction, but it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not sometimes since they are not talked about as much around here. You always seem to manage to read books I’ve never heard of before, which I love.
    This one does sound good – hopefully her other book will be even better!

    • It’s not much different around here; it’s hard to find a reliable source for translated fiction. And even harder to find some of the books that sound interesting. I started reading the Three Percent blog, which is all about translated fiction, and while some of the books they discuss seem very “out there,” it’s a good start to find out about translations.
      And by the way, YOU always read the books I want to read or don’t yet know I want to read. 🙂 (I’m about to start This Godforsaken Place.)

  8. Sounds really interesting. I really should try read more translated fiction. So much of my reading is dominated by English, American and Irish writers. I don’t even read as much Irish translated fiction as I should.

    • I read mostly books written by English-speaking authors, too. Occasionally, there’s something from Asia or South America thrown in. Sometimes, it’s hard to find good translated fiction, or the books are hard to get. I hope that the Women in Translation event next month will give me some ideas for what to look for next.

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