Thursday, 9 December 2010

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

It took me a long time to get around reading this book. From the very start when I saw it in Finland and then heard about its brilliance from my friends, I knew the subject matter would be very difficult for me to read about. Especially if the book was well written.

I knew the purge in the book referred to the mass deportation of Estonian 'dissidents' by Stalin to Siberian gulags. I also knew it centred around three generations of Estonian women.

The original Finnish version of Purge, Puhdistus, by the Finnish-Estonian writer, Sofi Oksanen, started life as a play. As a novel, published in 2008, it has won the most prestigious of literary prizes, The Finlandia Award, The Nordic Council Literary Prize and The FNCA Prize in France, but to name a few. The book has been translated to some 40 languages and is to be turned into a film in Finland, to premier in 2012.

The story of Purge slowly unravels the horrors that three generations of Estonian women experienced, from the German occupation during the 2nd World War, to the oppression of the Soviet era and to present day sex trafficking.  In its centre the novel has a tragic love story, reflected against the backdrop of the powerful, changing occupations of a land and its people. The writer herself has said that she wanted to use the female body as a metaphor for an occupied country.

Ageing Aliide Truu lives alone in her family's old farmhouse - a privilege which we learn she's had to pay dearly for - when a young twenty-something girl, Zoe appears on her doorstep. Bruised and scantily clothed, Zoe claims to be escaping a violent husband, but the experienced older woman suspects all is not as the girl explains. What's more she sounds like a Russian with an odd accent, 'But this girl's Estonian had a different flavour, something older, yellow and moth-eaten. There was a strange taste of death in it.'  Zoe's sudden appearance makes Aliide recall old, deeply buried memories, and Aliide cannot wait to get rid of the intruder.

The story weaves between Estonia of the 1990's, recounting Zoe's horrific fate, with that of Aliide's tragic personal history. The reader's attention is held with a plot twist in each chapter, with a small piece of information about the two women's past revealing more and more horrific details. In spite of the horror and the suffering described, the reader cannot but be spellbound by the writing: why is Aliide so bitter and so afraid of her neighbours when the Soviet occupiers have long since gone? Why does she still wear two pairs of underpants? How did Zoe end up the way she has, and why and how did she come to this house in rural Estonia of all places?

This book is not a cheerful read. It's also not a Nordic crime thriller. It is, however, an intelligent page turner about a piece of history which is not often written about. There's a raw honesty in the novel about human behaviour in the face of cruel injustice which is unusual. Just as I knew I would, I found it a difficult read, but having finished it I now want to go over it again a little more carefully, rather than with my heart pounding at the turn of each page. I suggest you do just that the first time around, if you can.

Yesterday I recommended this book on a radio interview with BBC World Service, and I know I won't be the last book seller who'll have this book on their shelves as a 'must read'.

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