Lucy Popescu

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Review – Purge

Posted by lucypopescu on January 10, 2011

Purge

by Sofi Oksanen

Tr Lola Rogers

Atlantic Books £6.99

Purge opens in 1992 Estonia, shortly after the country regained its independence from the Soviet Union. Aliide has lived in the same small house, on the edge of a forest, for most of her life. On this particular morning, she is startled to find a young woman huddled under a tree in her garden. She is filthy, bruised and shoeless, and speaks an old-fashioned Estonian.

Zara has been lured from her home in Vladivostok by a Russian pimp and sold into prostitution in Germany. She has escaped her captors and carries with her a photograph that suggests a connection with Aliide.

From these tumultuous beginnings, Finnish-Estonian novelist Sofi Oksanen crafts a spellbinding tale that interweaves a country’s political past with human drama. (It is no surprise to learn that Purge was initially conceived as a play.)

Oksanen covers a period under both Soviet and Nazi occupation when Estonia suffered the most brutal purges of its people. Tens of thousands of people, including Jewish-Estonians, were forcibly deported to labour camps in Siberia. Others were killed or fled into exile. She captures the instability of the time through her vivid descriptions of the torture and terrible violations that took place, the guerrilla movement known as the ‘Forest Brothers’, the paranoia of ordinary people and their betrayal of neighbours, the difficult moral choices, shameful secrets and the resulting social fragmentation.

These historic events are masterfully contrasted with the burgeoning nationalism of a newly independent Estonia and the Russian criminal underclass that arose so swiftly from the ashes of Perestroika. What unites these parallel worlds is the exploitation of women, who continue to be betrayed and their bodies bartered.

Flitting seamlessly between the two periods, Oksanen gradually reveals the far-reaching implications of the two women’s choices, a shared sense of guilt, their mistreatment and the emotional cost on their lives.

Initially driven by selfish impulses, it is unclear whether Aliide is intrinsically ruthless or merely a victim of circumstance. Indisputably, she suffers at the hands of the Soviets, but when she is able to vent her frustrations she proves almost as deadly. It is this particular tension – whether Zara will be helped or betrayed by the old woman – that keeps us reading, right up until the book’s dramatic conclusion.

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