Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen: A Book Review

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This book isn't about anorexia or bulimia or the occasional colon cleanse.  Purge is a book of two voices that takes us  through the tumultuous times of WWII, the communist occupation of eastern Europe and into the uncertainty of Soviet life in the 1990's. It does not take place in Russia but in the little known country of Estonia.   Estonia  is a country in the Baltic Region of Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the south by Latvia (343 km), and to the east by the Russian Federation.  But this story could have been placed in any country that had been occupied by the Germans and then the Soviets.  I'm going to do an aside here.  My husband and I visited Moscow a year ago and wanted to go to the National Museum of Military History.  We wanted to hear the Russian's "take" on things.  Our guide, Olga, informed us that when the Russians finally drove the Germans back across the Germans' eastern front that they, the Soviets, liberated the countries that the Germans had occupied.  Ok then. We rolled our eyes.   Just ask those "liberated" people how they liked it and  you will see just how much  in Purge.  The two voices are that of Aliide, born in the 1920's, in Estonia in a small village.  The second voice is that of Zara, born in Vladivostok, Russia, sometime in the late 1970's.  The two voices meet in 1992 when Zara escapes from her brutal pimp, Pasha,  who had lured her from Russia with promises of making great money but instead  forces her into being a sex slave in Germany.  Read more...
Zara shows up on Aliide's doorstep.  Each is suspicious of the other.  The difference between the two is that Zara knows who Aliide is.    Aliide, on the other hand, having been through German and Soviet occupations, thinks Zara is a possible thief, a liar, a "front" to scope out what she may have or what she is thinking.  Aliide trusts no one.  That's because she, herself, can not be trusted.  Aliide's secret  is that all of her adult life she has had an obsession with a man...her sister Ingel's husband, Hans Pekk.  She would do anything to keep Hans in her life.  She yearned and ached for him.  While Hans yearned and ached for his wife.  The story moves back and forth from the present to the future and back again to give you an idea of what has molded Aliide's character, which on the surface is very unsympathetic.  Zara's story is primarily about the brutal life being forced on her by her pimp.  The author really tries to bring to the forefront the luring of young girls into the lurid life of a sex slave in today's world.  Yes, today's world.  Will Aliide turn Zara back over to Pasha as she and many of her comrades were forced to turn over their friends or family members during the occupations?  You can never be sure what Aliide will do if or when Pasha actually does show up at her door.

Here is NPR's take on the novel:  "Set in 1992, only three years removed from the joyful optimism undammed by the demolition of the Berlin Wall, Purge burns through the mists to show how decades of debasement have twisted society in the former USSR into one characterized by crime and cruelty. Oksanen couches this larger theme within a tight, unconventional crime novel, one punctuated by dreadful silences, shameful revelations and repellent intimacies. By examining the toll of history on a close, personal level, Oksanen, an acclaimed Finnish playwright and novelist, examines the cost of mere survival (never mind the price of retaining one's dignity)."

It's a 5* read for me....


  1. Strange that you can't agree that Russia liberated eastern Europe. Would you have preferred Estonia to win the war together with their allies Germany?

    1. Stalin with his ally Hitler started the war by occupying Poland and the Baltic countries in 1939. Funny how Russians like to forget about that.