Monday, August 2, 2010

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

I love books that transport me to another place and I love lots of variety in my reading, which is why I find translations of international literature so appealing. Sofi Oksanen is an award-winning Finnish-Estonian author. I heard about another book of hers -- Baby Jane -- which has lesbian content, but I didn't find a copy at any local library or bookstore, so I picked up Purge instead.

The story is set almost entirely in the countryside of Estonia, with a few scenes in Vladivostok and a few in Berlin. A map at the beginning shows the immense distance between Vladivostok, which is on the Russian coast north of China, and Estonia. The time period moves back and forth between 1992 and 1936 onward. The brief occupation of Estonia by Nazi Germany, and then the years of Soviet occupation, followed by independence, have strongly shaped the lives of the two women that we meet.

Aliide Truu is in her late sixties in 1992. She lives alone in the house where she grew up. A desperate young woman, Zara Pekk, shows up on her doorstep in very bad shape after escaping from sexual slavery. Zara carries an ancient photo of Aliide and her sister Ingel. Aliide tells Zara that she has no sister. Their shared family history is untangled slowly, in spite of mutual suspicion and fear. Old and new atrocities are revealed.

Details of domestic life bring the setting vividly to life: the flyswatter made of leather; pickles prepared with horseradish; fruit drink made by melting jelly in boiling water and adding citric acid; bits overheard on the radio in the kitchen ("... Since there's no milk to give to our children, and no candy, how can they grow up to be healthy? Should we teach them to eat nettles and dandelion greens?") I've learned a little about a place I will likely never get to in person.

Both women are presented with psychological complexity. Their story is powerful, disturbing and, ultimately, redemptive.

No comments: