Saturday, 14 April 2012

Purge - Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)

Deep in an Estonian forest, two women, one young, one old, are hiding. Zara is a prostitute and a murderer, on the run from brutal captors – men who know how to punish a woman. Aliide offers refuge but not safety: she has her own criminal secrets – traitorous crimes of passion and revenge committed long ago, during the country’s brutal Soviet years. Both women have survived lives of abuse. But this time their survival depends on revealing the one thing history has taught them to keep safely hidden: the truth. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion, betrayal and retribution against a backdrop of Soviet oppression and European war.

Sofi Oksanen although born in Finland, is of Estonian extraction through her mother, who emigrated to Finland from the former Soviet republic in 1970. She is the author of three highly acclaimed works, this being the third and most recent.

This novel, which is set of course in Estonia covers the period from the late 1940's through to the early 1990's, shortly after the country regained independence.    

When we first meet the main character, Aliide Truu, she is living a somewhat solitary life in an Estonian village set deep in the forest. One morning after waging war against a fly, she spots something strange outside her window - unsure as to what it is, she investigates only to find that it a young woman in a somewhat dilapidated state, brusied and battered with torn clothes. Aliide's instincts tell her that she should leave the girl where she is, but because she can sense the danger that this girl is in, against her instincts, she takes her in.    

Slowly the girl's (whose name is Zara) past begins to unfold, and at the same time, so does Aliide's, for both are harbouring deep and terrible secrets. In Aliide's case the secrets are half a decade old, but she is connected to Zara in ways that she does not realise, for unbeknown to her, Zara is the daughter of her neice, whose mother, Aliide's sister was sent to Siberia as a traitor during the Communist years, by Aliide's own husband. 

As the two stories unfold, we begin to understand more about the history of Estonia and the choices and consequences of those choices, that her citizens had to make in order to survive. The two women on the surface at least are very different, and yet they are the same, victims of circumstance, of perhaps having made the wrong choices, choices that nevertheless they felt they had to make and choices that once made, could not be unmade.

This would for those of a more sensitive disposition be a somewhat disturbing book, exploring as it does prostitution, trafficking, and betrayal in no short amount, but there are two sides to each story, and this is also a book about survival and redemption and of what the human spirit can endure when pushed almost to the very edge. For me it is a must read.

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