Purge by Sofi Oksanen
|Purge by Sofi Oksanen|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: Harsh but vivid novel of two women equally hiding from troubled pasts. Big themes of the ex-USSR and the sex industry focus on the horrors borne by women inside a subtle thriller narrative. It's a superb and powerful achievement, this novel, and Bookbag recommends it without reservation.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 400||Date: July 2010|
|External links: Author's website|
Estonia 1992. A year after her country has regained independence from the Soviet Union, Aliide Truu is in her remote cottage in the woods, canning tomatoes from a bumper harvest, swatting at ever-present flies, and trying not to think about the neighbourhood boys who persecute her remorselessly, throwing rocks at her windows, and even poisoning her dog. Looking out of the window, she sees a bedraggled girl lying outside. Zara is a sex-trafficked girl from Russia, on the run from her pimps.
Used to looking over her shoulder and avoiding risk at all costs, Aliide's first instinct is to ignore the battered and bruised girl, but somehow she finds herself inviting her in, cleaning her up, and allowing her to take shelter. The two women hesitantly begin to take tentative steps towards knowing the other, and then Zara drops her bombshell. She shows Aliide an old, yellowing photograph - it's a picture of Zara's grandmother and her sister, standing outside Aliide's home in the 1940s.
How can this be?
In this rather brutal novel, Sofi Oksanen explores the violation of women - through war, through politics, and through sex. It's deeply disturbing but absolutely riveting as it jumps around in time from World War II and German occupation through life in a Soviet collective to the disorder of the years immediately following independence. It speaks to the horrors visited upon women and the depths to which people sometimes have to sink simply in order to survive. Zara fears Aliide's rejection if her prostituted and degrading past is revealed. And Aliide has dark secrets that she's spent a lifetime trying to keep hidden.
Each woman has committed dreadful wrongs and Oksanen doesn't try to paint them less dreadful, but nonetheless the novel maintains empathy with both of them. They are casualties of their time and environment - but for me, they were most of all the casualties of men - and so we can understand their crimes. Absolution though, is another matter, and here the novel is bleakly realistic. Some things just can't be put right and all you can do is survive. But for some, there is still hope. And as Zara's captors close in upon Aliide's cottage, the suspense is so palpable, it's shockingly raw. You can almost breathe it.
There are big issues covered here: World War II, the Holocaust, the Chernobyl disaster, the break up of the Soviet Union, sex trafficking. But the book feels intensely personal - tough, uncompromising and utterly without mercy, but tremendously subtle. It's hard to read about shame, but sometimes you should. Purge is a remarkable achievement.
My thanks to the good people at Atlantic for sending the book.
Set in Africa, during the Nigeria-Biafra war of the 1960s, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks with equal power about the atrocities humans sometimes endure when they need to survive.
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