Book of the month: Sofi Oksanen

This book has been on my radar for a long time. I almost wrote that it has been on my TBR mountain since Lola Rogers’s English translation first came out in 2010, but of course that isn’t the case. Back then, when my reading was limited almost exclusively to the products of anglophone writers, this novel would have passed me by.

Still, it was one of the recommendations I got when I asked the world to give me its book suggestions back in 2012. Nearly seven years later, with the help of a nudge from simonlitton on Twitter, I finally got round to Purge by Sofi Oksanen.

The story starts in 1992 when elderly Estonian villager Aliide Truu finds a bedraggled young woman, Zara, in her yard. Against her better judgement, and in spite of her fear that she could be the victim of a trick, she takes the visitor in. The uneasy interaction that follows initiates a slow unfolding of painful personal and national histories, revealing the loyalties and betrayals that link the two characters and making possible a kind of redemption that they might never have been able to achieve individually.

At its best, Oksanen and Rogers’s writing is powerful and spare. Using details adroitly, the narrative sweeps readers back and forth over decades, delivering some profoundly evocative scenes along the way. There are moments of great poignancy, as when we read about Aliide catching sight of the man she falls in love with, in the instant before he sets eyes on her beautiful older sister.

There is also horror. The description of the way trafficked girls passing out of service become canvases for the aspiring tattoo artist who controls them inks itself onto the imagination. Similarly, Oksanen presents the process by which victims internalise abuse and can grow to hate others who have experienced such violations with memorable clarity.

Often the source of the book’s power lies in Oksanen’s awareness of when to stop writing. The most shocking scene in the novel works by galloping the reader towards its terrible conclusion and then stopping just short of the brutal act towards which it has been racing, like a horse refusing a jump, so that the reader is bucked into the hideous conclusion of the scene alone. Reticence also adds a great deal to the account of the following day, when the traumatised women and Aliide’s young niece return home to eat ‘their pancakes with rubber lips, glass eyes shiny and dry, waxed cloth skin dry and smooth’. By refusing to address what has happened directly, Oksanen conveys the ruination of their domestic peace much more effectively than a frank explanation could do.

This approach also works when it comes to the numerous historical events upon which the narrative touches. The Chernobyl disaster is a good example. Although it is  a relatively small component in the overall narrative arc, Oksanen makes it count by seizing on a few arresting details to bring home its monstrous impact:

‘Later Aliide heard the stories of fields covered in dolomite and trains filled with evacuees, children crying, soldiers driving families from their homes, and strange flakes, strangely glittering, that filled their yards, and children trying to catch them as they fell, and little girls wanting to wear them in their hair for decoration, but then the flakes disappeared, and so did the children’s hair.’

The writing is not always this good. There are some questionable adjectives and places where repetitions feel clumsy (impossible for me to know whether this was the case in the original). There are also a few too many similes that don’t work hard enough to earn their place. In addition, Oksanen (and I’m pretty certain this must be down to her unless Rogers did some substantial rewriting when she translated the novel) has a habit of finishing scenes with a single-sentence detail about an insect or bird on the fringes of the action. It can be very effective, but she uses this device a little too often and by the middle of the book it’s rather wearing.

The structural daring of the book also makes for the occasional wobble. Now and then, cutting back and forth across the decades necessitates the inclusion of some expository passages that jar with the narrative’s usual reticence. In particular, the extracts from the notebook of Aliide’s brother-in-law Hans feel bald to the point of functional a lot of the time.

Issues like this are almost inevitable, however, in books of such ambition. They certainly don’t spoil the ride. This novel is as engrossing as it is important, shedding light on a side of history too often neglected in the English-speaking world. Oksanen should be congratulated for the risks she takes – when they pay off, as they do most of the time, she is hard to beat.

Purge (Puh-distus) by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (Atlantic, 2011)

Picture: ‘Room III Patarei Prison’ by Raimo Papper on flickr.com