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Sofi Oksanen’s novel is centered in rural Estonia principally during the period of the Cold War. It traces the lives of two sisters, Aliide and Ingel and a young woman who Aliide finds deposited in front of her house. The young woman, Zara, is a victim of Russian and Estonian sex trade. Zara is impressed by the wealth of her childhood friend Oksanka upon her return to Vladivostok from Germany. She takes up her friend’s offer to find her a job in Germany, where she turned into a prostitute. Aliide was jealous of her elder sister Ingel, who has both beauty and the homemaking skills to become the wife of Hans, a young man Aliide was secretly attracted to. This jealously results in intrigue, as Hans aligns with Germany and the anti-Communist movement in Estonia, following occupation by the Soviet Union. Aliide is apolitical but suffers from the purging from both sides in defense of Hans. To avoid future tortured cleansing she marries a leader in the local communist party, all the while trying to protect Zara who has escaped from her pimps.

This is a novel where all the characters are victims- even the perpetrators. Ms. Oksanen’s description of the torturing of Aliide is graphic. She is not a sympathetic character, as innocence is in short supply, save for Ingel. There is a sense of quiet siege throughout the novel, as is the case with occupations.

The strength of the book is its ending. Zara’s familial relationship is telegraphed early in the book, except to Aliide. It is the revelation of the secret State dossiers on certain of the characters at the conclusion of the novel that alters the reader’s perspective about them. This twist is what I enjoyed most about this book.

The author is Finnish-Estonian and Purge was her first novel translated into English. It was the first novel to win both of Finland’s principal literary awards, the Finlandia and the Runeberg. It was translated into English by Lola Rogers and published in the United States by Black Cat. It has a map of the Baltic and Scandinavian region which is the venue of the novel. I appreciate this and wish more historical fiction books did so.

The 2015 recipient of the Finlandia Prize was Laura Lindstedt for her novel “Oneiron”, which relates the story of seven women who find themselves in a mystical place following their deaths. It was the second time she won the prize. The 2015 recipient of the Runeberg Prize was Joni Skiftesvik for his novel “Valkoinen Toyota vei vaimoni”. It is autobiographical and in English means “The white Toyota took my wife.”

 

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