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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Sofi Oksanen

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To purchase Purge

Title: Purge
Author: Sofi Oksanen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 390 pages
Original in: Finnish
Availability: Purge - US
Purge - UK
Purge - Canada
Purge - India
Purge - France
Fegefeuer - Deutschland
La purga - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : reasonably good presentation of two periods of history and their effects on individuals

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 21/8/2010 Maya Jaggi
The Independent . 27/8/2010 Paul Binding
NZZ . 4/9/2010 Andreas Breitenstein
Svenska Dagbladet . 29/1/2010 Elise Karlsson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Shot through with sibling jealousy, the plot has a gothic power and implausibility, with people stifled in sealed chambers and corpses left under floorboards. Aliide's own warped cruelty enables a brutal honesty about the moral ambiguities of collaboration, with Oksanen, a young Finnish writer of Finnish-Estonian parentage, brave enough to depict earlier generations as clearly culpable." - Maya Jaggi, The Guardian

  • "Readers should brush up on Estonia's harsh 20th-century history to do proper justice to this extraordinary novel's unflinching scrutiny of heart and conscience operating in near-impossible circumstances." - Paul Binding, The Independent

  • "Oksanen versteht komplexe Sachverhalte klug zu schichten und raffiniert zu verknoten. Zudem besitzt sie Talent für dramatische Komposition, lyrische Schilderung und symbolische Überhöhung. So erzeugt Fegefeuer einen unheimlichen Suspense und zugleich einen Sog der Bilder, dem schwer zu widerstehen ist. (...) Sofi Oksanen ist mit Fegefeuer ein kapitaler Wurf gelungen: ein historischer Roman, der an den Mut, das Leid und die Schuld der Menschen gemahnt, ohne sie zu denunzieren; ein Frauenroman, der das Weibliche überhöht, ohne es zu ideologisieren oder zu verkitschen; eine packende und quälende Darstellung kommunistischer Paranoia und eine abgründige Zeitkritik; sodann eine Feier der Sinnlichkeit der Welt und der Sinnhaftigkeit grosser familiärer Gefühle. Sucht man nach einer vergleichbaren Melange, fällt einem Pasternaks Doktor Schiwago ein." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Utrensning är ett spännande melodrama, och som sådant fördjupar det kanske inte framför allt vår kunskap om andra världskriget, däremot väcker romanen intresset för att lära sig mer om en alltför försummad aspekt av det." - Elise Karlsson, Svenska Dagbladet

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A large part of Purge is presented practically as a chamber-piece (perhaps because the material was first used by Oksanen in a play of the same name), with scenes from both the near-present (the early 1990s) and decades earlier all set -- some claustrophobically so -- in and around a house, an isolated little island. The novel goes back and forth in time as it deals with two eras of violent upheaval: the near-contemporary scenes are set around the time shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the earlier ones lead through World War II and the establishment of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (as part of the USSR); in both periods, there is the illusion and hope of greater freedom and independence (personal and national) and there are also greater forces that crush these (or try their best to).
       The central character, appearing in both time-periods, is Aliide Truu. In 1992 the old woman lives alone in the Estonian countryside, her daughter having moved to Finland years earlier. One day she finds a young woman, Zara, outside her house. Zara is originally from Vladivostok, and tells Aliide a convoluted story about how she found her way here; it's soon clear, however, that Zara has been a sex-worker in the West, and that she is now desperately on the run from her pimp.
       To Aliide's surprise, Zara speaks Estonian -- though: "her sentences were awkward; they came from a world of brittle paper, moldy old albums emptied of pictures". The reason she speaks Estonian is also the reason she showed up on Aliide's doorstep, of all places: there's a connection between the two women. But Zara does not come right out and reveal it -- and Aliide can't (or doesn't want to ...) immediately guess it.
       Purge is presented in short chapters that jump around in time and include scenes from Zara's life in Vladivostok, the temptation to earn money in the West, and, eventually, the horrible experiences she had once her life was in the hands of the goon, Pasha, her handler and pimp. Much of the novel is also set in earlier times, and recounts Aliide's youth with her sister Ingel, and then their life with the man Aliide fell in love with but who lost his heart to Ingel, Hans Pekk.
       Pekk collaborated with the Germans during the Second World War -- more sympathetic to him and the cause of Estonian independence than the Russians --, and with the Soviet victory he was no longer able to live out in the open. The sisters staged his death in 1945, but the new authorities remained suspicious; the sisters managed to keep him hidden, but were in constant danger because of him. And they suffered for the sympathies he was so outspoken about during the war.
       Oksanen isn't too graphic in presenting the horrors the various women -- Aliide and her sister, Zara, and, in one heart-breaking scene, Ingel and Hans' daughter, Linda -- are subjected to, but what she does relate is horrific enough. The powers that be do their best to dehumanize these women, to destroy their very souls; the women are fairly resilient, yet still are greatly damaged by what they are subjected to.
       Aliide did what she could and needed to to live the semblance of a normal life (and to keep Hans alive and hidden), marrying a good local Communist, which offered her some cover and protection. But Ingel and Linda were removed from the scene, and Aliide has to live with the guilt of that the rest of her life.
       Predictably, Zara's appearance will allow Aliide some measure of redemption -- though this turns out to be a fairly melodramatic plot-twist.
       Oksanen is quite good at slowly revealing these women and their stories, and especially in describing how they have been affected by their experiences. Zara, for example, has difficulty opening up -- even slightly -- to Aliide:

Over the past year she had forgotten all the normal ways of being with people -- how to get to know a person, how to have a conversation -- and she couldn't think of a segue to break the silence.
       Yes, it's all a bit simplistic, but with the rapid cuts back and forth between past and present, and the slow but steady trickle of disclosures it works quite well.
       Oksanen also keep the tension fairly steady and high, from Aliide's initial worries that Zara is some sort of con-woman to Zara's worries that Pasha will arrive at any moment to the earlier long struggle to keep Hans' existence secret from the authorities.
       This is also a novel of Estonian history and spirit, with hidden Hans unable to understand why he (and Estonia) have been abandoned by all. Even after all has been lost and the Soviets are entrenched:
He just kept harping about how he was sure that England would come to save them, everything would be alright, America would come, Truman would come, England would come, rescue would come on a white horse, and Estonia's flag would be whiter than white.
     "Roosevelt will come !"
     "Roosevelt's dead."
     "The West won't forget about us !"
     "They already did. They won, and they forgot."
     "You have so little faith."
     Aliide didn't deny it.
       The Estonian ideal may be white, but of course Okasnen shows how bloodied and dirtied this poor nation was under Soviet rule (going so far -- too far -- to throw in a chapter set around the Chernobyl disaster, just to show one more time how the Soviets treated this small Baltic state (taking their relatively uncontaminated freshly-grown food ("pure Estonian food", as she puts it) for Moscow, and sending them dirty stuff from Ukraine and Belarus, for example)). Zara's contemporary fate also mirrors that of Estonia -- hoping for something better, and winding up with something much worse. What Oksanen (very consciously) presents here aren't just the rapes of country and women but a subjugation that goes considerably beyond rape.
       Purge is manipulative and simplistic, and the back and forth of the chapters (with their rather over-heated titles -- From the Tumult of the Front to the Scent of Syrup and the like) can get a bit out of hand at times, but it is still a solid and engaging read. Oksanen doesn't show a very deft touch, but she has a powerful story to tell, and she knows a few good tricks (such as restricting most of the action to a very few characters, and presenting them in scenes of relative isolation).

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 April 2010

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Purge: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Finnish author Sofi Oksanen was born in 1977.

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© 2010-2021 the complete review

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