book review: Purge by Sofi Oksanen

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PURGE by Sofi Oksanen
translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers
★★★★☆
Grove Press, 2010

 

Purge was my introduction to Sofi Oksanen and, in fact, my introduction to Finnish lit in general (Oksanen herself is Finnish-Estonian). I think this is a fascinating, flawed, and surprising book; it both delivers what it claims to on the blurb, and also takes the story in a direction that I was not at all expecting. Set in twentieth century Estonia, Purge follows the lives of two women, Aliide and Zara; Aliide is an older woman living alone in a remote Estonian village, and Zara is a young sex trafficking victim who shows up on her doorstep one day. The novel explores the relationship and the secret connection between the two women – this much I was expecting from the summary – but their relationship is almost backdrop to Oksanen’s unflinching examination of Soviet occupation.

If Purge has one major flaw, it has to be its momentum, or lack thereof. The first hundred pages which chronicle Aliide discovering Zara on her doorstep are almost entirely unnecessary (and I found the coda rather excessive as well). It’s only in Part 2 when the story makes a radical time jump backward to Aliide’s childhood do the wheels really start turning. But even then, a rather baffling and almost Victor Hugo-esque inclusion of chapter titles insists on neutering the impact of several key moments by announcing their arrival before you even begin the chapter. I won’t include examples so as to not spoil anything, but while I appreciated the effect at first, it grew wearisome. I do wonder if this is a convention of Finnish publishing or an offbeat choice on Oksanen’s part.

But all that said, once you get into the meat of this book, it has a lot to offer. Aliide is a brilliantly crafted character – shades of Atonement litter her narrative, though Purge is an altogether messier affair – and the relentless description of Soviet occupation in Estonia strongly evokes a time and a place that I previously knew almost nothing of. And it’s less a story about these two women – Aliide and Zara – coming together, than a commentary on the unending injustices faced by women in modern history. It’s a stark, bleak book that won’t have much to offer to anyone who needs levity or a protagonist to root for, but I found it very striking – I doubt it’s a book I will be forgetting in a hurry.


You can pick up a copy of Purge here on Book Depository.

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18 thoughts on “book review: Purge by Sofi Oksanen

    • That is eye-catching! There’s something about the US cover that I find very striking as well. I wouldn’t say it’s essential reading if the blurb doesn’t appeal to you, but it’s worth giving a shot if you’re intrigued enough!

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  1. I loved this book! Aliide’s part of the story is definitely more interesting than Zara’s, but I wasn’t particularly bothered about lack of momentum. It is indeed a bleak one, but I agree it is a story, which stays with you. I read it ages ago, and still think about it now and then.

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    • That’s great to hear – I’m sure it will have a lasting impression on me as well! It’s funny, because I read the summary thinking that Zara’s story would be the more harrowing and impactful one – and it was certainly both of those things – but Aliide’s story was just all kinds of horrifying.

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  2. Great review! This does sound intriguing, both the Soviet occupation and the two main women. I think I’ll add this to my TBR… though I’ll try to remember not to look at the chapter titles while reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The chapter titles are HUGE so they’re hard to avoid!! And it’s like, I objectively understand how they could be considered an asset – they lend the book a kind of fable-esque quality? But I found myself so frustrated by the way they killed the story’s momentum. But yes, it’s a great book, I hope you do enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, that is disappointing. I do think I’d prefer narrative momentum to fable style as well, but the story certainly sounds interesting enough to take the chance. And I’ve just discovered that it is available through my library, which makes it an easy choice!

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