Sofi Oksanen's bestselling novel Purge is a masterpiece, and I don't say that lightly - I don't think I've ever reviewed a book that gripped me quite so thoroughly, especially as this type of novel isn't my usual cup of tea. Puhdistus ("Purge") started out as a play and was staged at the Finnish National Theatre in 2007 - out of the play grew Oksanen's third literary novel Puhdistus (2008). It became a runaway success, ranked #1 on the bestseller list for fiction in Finland when it was published. She was awarded the prestigious Finlandia Prize (2008) and the Runeberg Prize (2009) for Puhdistus. Oksanen is the youngest author ever to win the prestigious Finlandia Prize, which comes with a prize sum of 30.000 and ensures wide recognition and boosted sales in Finland at least. The Finlandia Award, awarded in early December, was the peak of a prize-winning season for Oksanen; since Purge was published she has been appointed Cristina of the Year (an academic prize from the University of Helsinki), received The Mika Waltari Award 2008, The Great Finnish Book Club Prize 2008, The Kalevi Jäntti Award 2008, The Runeberg Award 2008 and The Varjo-Finlandia Award 2009. In addition, Purge is shortlisted for the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2010
(Updated March 30th 2010 - Sofi Oksanen has won the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2010 - quote from the news release "The Finnish author Sofi Oksanen has won the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2010 for her work "Puhdistus." Sofi Oksanen (born 1977) shows her full strength with her third novel 'Puhdistus'. In a rich and expressive language she weaves a specific historical event, the Soviet occupation of Estonia, with a burning topical global contemporary theme - trafficking around the Baltic Sea. The Adjudication Committee wrote:
"Sofi Oksanen's novel 'Puhdistus' ('Cleansing') takes place in two periods of time in Estonia, but its themes of love, treachery, power and powerlessness are timeless. 'Puhdistus' vibrates with tension: unspoken secrets and deeply shameful deeds stretch out across the book like a web and compel the reader to keep reading. With a rare precise and apposite language Oksanen describes what history does to individuals and history's pervasion in the present." The Literature Prize, worth DKK 350,000, will be presented to Sofi Oksanen at the beginning of November 2010 during the Nordic Council Session in Reykjavik. The Nordic Council Literature Prize has been awarded since 1962).
I've struggled through another of Oksanen's books, "Stalin's Cows", reading the Finnish-language version (it isn't available in English), which was a bit of a struggle, and really enjoyed it. I was really happy to see Puhdistus (Purge) available in English, bought it, read it and was thoroughly surprised and impressed by just how good it is. And speaking as one who has struggled through reading a few books in Finnish, the translation into English by Lola Rogers is really well done. If you want to read a recent novel (as opposed to older classics) by one of Finland's leading novelist's, this is one to start with, although it's set in Estonia. Sofi Oksanen herself (born January 7, 1977) is now a popular contemporary writer in Finland. She was born in Jyväskylä (Finland), of Estonian heritage. She is a former dramaturgy student of the Finnish Theatre Academy. Both the Finnish and Estonian press make a lot of her status as angry young woman regarding women's issues and the distortion of Soviet history as related to Finland and Estonia. But she does know her onions. Under the Gothic exterior lurks a knowledgeable person.
Personnally, I can't recommend Oksanen's writing highly enough.
To paraphrase a couple of the better literary reviews, Purge is a chilling and rather subtle drama of two generations of women, set in wartime 1940's Estonia during the Soviet occupation, and in the same country in the 90's as it grapples with the realities of a new Europe. Through the stories of two women, Sofi Oksanen shows us the history of Estonia, a small country that has been repeatedly violated by the Russians, by the West and by history itself, yet managed to stand strong and survive against all odds. As well as a skilfully crafted tale, Purge is also a stinging account of a chapter of Eastern European history that we are on the verge of forgetting. Or denying. In her hands, this story makes concrete the grisly events of recent Estonian history. Oksanen herself has publicly criticised the trendy nostalgia for the Soviet Union, those who put on a hammer and sickle t-shirt and stick a Lenin pin on their chest without a thought to what they are advertising. (my own comment - With Purge, Oksanen doesn't just rap these pin-wearers on the knuckles, she hits them over the head with a sledgehammer. Brutally!)
Narrated through dual story lines and multiple points of view, Purge tells the suspenseful and dramatic story of Aliide Truu, an old Estonian women whose hands are soiled with the crimes she committed during the Soviet era, and Zara, a young sex trafficking victim who in the present has managed to escape and has come to seek shelter at Aliide's countryside home, as well as Zara's grandfather, Hans (who was one of the Forest Brothers who first fought the Soviet occupiers and then, after Estonia was once more occupied, was living for a long time in a concealed room in what is now Aliide's house). As the two women start to approach each other and the links between them are revealed bit by bit, a tragic and complex family drama of rivalry, lust, and loss that plays out during the worst years of the Soviet occupation of Estonia unfolds. In this way, Purge becomes an investigation into the female experience of the loss of freedom, and the cost of survival in a repressive system. The entire story is well-composed and multifaceted: the two women as alternating protagonists, pieces of a fugitive's diary, confidential surveillance reports, all supplemented with chapter titles that hint at what is happening. That the narrative is not chronological, but repeatedly retrieves storylines and circumstances from various earlier time periods only adds to the suspense...as do the emotions, jealousy and sexuality, and the terrible justification of murder.
In reading Purge, it helps to know a little about Estonian history, otherwise the motives of the characters may be misinterpreted. I noticed for example that a recent reviewer mentioned that Hans was a murderer. That's actually a question of interpretation - was Han's a murderer, or was he a hero who continued to fight for Estonia even when the cause was hopeless. There's so many multiple facets to this book that this type of question crops up everywhere. Anyhow, for those that know little about Estonia but are interested in the book, he's a brief summary that may help with some context:
1919 - Estonia becomes an independant state, breaking away from Tsarist Russia in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Estonian army fights of the Bolshevik Red Army's attempts to reconqour the newly independent state with the aid of the British Royal Navy and Finnish volunteers,
1940 - the Russians invaded. Estonia was absorbed into the Soviet Union and a Communist regime was imposed. The red terror began in June 1941, with many thousands of Estonians deported and / or executed. As a result, when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, many Estonians saw them as liberators and supported the Germans, many joining the German Army (an Estonian soldier, Alfons Rebane - look him up in Wikipedia, incidentally, was one of only two non-Germans to be awarded the highest German military medal - the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves).
1944 - The Red Army again overran Estonia, dissolving an Estonian government that had assumed power after the German Army withdrew. The Russians then imposed a tyrannical regime and in 1949, thousands more Estonians were deported. Some Estonians fled to the forests and fought the Russians. They became known as Forest Brothers, with the last known soldier dying in 1978
So to help put the book in context, to most Estonians the Germans were liberators and their control was hardly a reign of terror, except to Estonian Jews. The Soviet Union was a far more murderous and oppresive ruler, and Purge illustrates this in literary form, as well as portraying the dilemma many Estonians such as Han's faced.
Anyhow, here's a bunch of quotes from reviews from the Salomonsson Agency website. You get the gist of what everyone thinks quite easily from these and personnally, I agree. It's a superb piece of writing and well worth reading.
"A sheer masterpiece... A marvel... I hope that everyone in the world who knows how to read, reads Purge."
--Nancy Huston, author of Fault Lines
"Purge is a truly stunning novel, both heartbreaking and optimistic. Through the stories of two women, Sofi Oksanen shows us the history of a country that has been repeatedly violated by the Russians, by the West, by history itself, yet managed to stand strong."
--Lara Vapnyar, author of There Are Jews in my House
"This wonderfully subtle thriller...captures both the tragic consequences of one of Europe's biggest conflicts and the universal horrors that war inflicts on women. With a tone somewhere between Ian McEwan's Atonement and the best of the current crop of European crime novelists, this bitter gem promises great things from the talented Oksanen."
Kirkus Reviews (US)
"Oksanen adeptly handles dual story lines and multiple points of view as she keeps us turning pages to reach the dramatic conclusion. Verdict: Highly recommended for fans of classic Russian writers like Tolstoy and Pasternak, as well as those who enjoy a contemporary tale of lust and betrayal."
Library Journal Review (US)
"A suggestion for the Nobel Prize. /.../ If you're going to read one book this spring, read Sofi Oksanen's Puhdistus. /.../ Oksanen writes superbly. Language, technique, plot and message - all in an alloy that is sensational. [Oksanen will receive] the Nobel Prize in a few years. If one is allowed to guess."
Maria Schottenius, Dagens Nyheter (Sweden)
"It's no wonder that Purge has been nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, because it is not only an incredibly elegant story about two women whose existences are determined by great national events, it is also a stinging account of a chapter of Eastern European history that we are on the verge of forgetting. Or denying. /.../ Sofi Oksanen is an eminently skilled epic novelist, who intricately unravels her fascinating story, bit by bit. She has a sense for the subtle, inner drama of a distorted mind and love's self-deceptive logic. Finland can be proud of its new, brilliant star. Only the very best that can bring to light a suffering mind and find a wounded nation within."
"The entire story is masterly composed and multifaceted: the two women as altering protagonists, pieces of a fugitive's diary, confidential surveillance reports, and all supplemented with chapter mottos. That the narrative is not chronological, but repeatedly retrieves storylines and circumstances from various earlier time periods, does not only add to the suspense...but also to the wild ways of emotions, jealousy and sexuality, and the terrible justification of murder. /.../ It is astonishingly administered by Sofi Oksanen in this book about "purging", in a combination of dimensions ... that grabs hold of the reader to expose the inexorability of existence."
"The tension created [in Purge] by the alternating times makes it difficult for the reader to let go of the book. Through both characters, the story unravels some of the historical and shocking events that took place in their country... In a way, one could regard Purge as a thriller, although it escapes this narrow definition by dealing with essential issues. The book is beautifully constructed of short chapters, occurring in different times and eras, and still manages to weave a clear and continuous story, shadowed by constant guilt and terror."
Ruth Almog, Haaretz (Israel)
"Oksanen knows how to tell a story, building the plot in a most interesting multi-layered way. The alternating consciousnesses, each from a different point of view of Aliide, Zara or Zara's grandfather (who is hiding in the attic) form a complex story, that of Aliide and her horrible deeds during the war, and that of Zara, forced into prostitution and having no contact with her family."
Haaretz Book Supplement (Israel)
"An overwhelming reading experience...an intense suspense...takes hold of the reader from the very first lines. Cause even if this young author writes about human trafficking, about abuse and brutality in the Estonian countryside, it's all about the literary allusions and the art of ambiguity... Oksanen is a tightrope walker. She has a sense for details, and gives them the required weight and significance... Sofi Oksanen has with this strong, literary narrative given us a unique insight not only into the modern history of Estonia. Piercingly and mercilessly she reveals the human detriment of brutal political regimes. In an impressive way, she also manages to tie the abuses of the past to the heartbreaking story of young Zara and her destiny."
"An extraordinarily strong novel...Oksanen depicts the most horrifying in merciless detail... Oksanen is unusually skilled when it comes to building a dramatic structure. This is a brutal novel. It is brutally physical, it exposes the brutality in the greater and smaller games we play, and it is brutally suspenseful to read."
"Now and then I read books that are so good that I can't quite understand how the author does it. This applies to Purge. ...With an elegant cross cutting, the two women's stories are unfolded... Oksanen's strength as a storyteller lies in the insinuations, the details... This fantastic novel is also a declaration of love to Estonia."
"A compelling document of the eternally humane and the equally eternal inhumane /.../ The story is a mosaic of short chapters from different periods in time, and with this technique [Oksanen] illuminates many important themes from several different perspectives. But what impresses the very most in the book is the vibrant and precise prose, where small details often are what make the scenes ring true and authentic. /.../ As a depiction of Estonia during and after the [second world] war, I can't imagine anything other than that the novel is excellent: the picture of the time and personal characteristics are absolutely convincing, one reads as if this simply must have happened."
Dag og Tid (Norway)
"[Oksanen] has a fantastic ability to stage grotesque scenes that result in remarkable and intense observations. These can come unexpectedly, but nonetheless feel natural in the context... Sofi Oksanen is an unusually ambitious storyteller with a firm grasp of the many seemingly loose threads she tosses out. Although Purge is not a comfortable book to read, it is a terribly gratifying journey through time and space."
Dagens Næringsliv (Norway)
"[Sofi Oksanen is] a powerful new voice from Finland."
"As a drama, Purge (2007) was a theater event; as a published volume, it is a true reading experience. /.../ Now Oksanen the storyteller shows us that a novel is always a novel. The countryside of western Estonia in the 20th century smoulders in her new work as an epic place and time, giving this chronicle of the emotions of two generations of women an almost mythological context."
Helsingin Sanomat (Finland)
"The multidimensionality of Purge is startling. /.../ Shame, betrayal, guilt, atonement. Sofi Oksanen's third novel encompasses these grand themes with the complexity and seriousness worthy of them. In her hands, they are made concrete in the grisly events of recent Estonian history. /.../ Oksanen has publicly criticised the trendy nostalgia for the Soviet Union, those who put on a hammer and sickle t-shirt and stick a Lenin pin on their chest without a thought to what they are advertising. With Purge, Oksanen doesn't just rap these pin-wearers on the knuckles, she hits them with a sledgehammer."
Turun Sanomat (Finland)
"Weak when it comes to love, Aliide Truu's final solution has an Old Testament suddenness that is cathartic. /.../ Through Aliide's tragic history, Oksanen ties the political to the personal, to the present moment in history."
"Through the story of two generations of women, Oksanen describes the tragic events of the Estonian Republic, and how they infiltrate a family's life, with incredible power. /.../ The story forces us to ponder the question of whether there is both good and bad patriotism, and what horrors we are willing to commit in its name. /... / The text is poetic, precise, and economical. /.../ With her novel Purge, Sofi Oksanen leaps to the foremost ranks of Finnish writers."
YLE Uutiset (Finland)
"Sofi Oksanen's third novel brings the silenced stories of Estonia's present and its recent past into the open. /.../ Purge is a breathtaking novel dense with emotion that snares the reader from the very first pages. Oksanen's narrative carries us into its world. It is touching, horrifying, it makes us shudder and gasp for breath."
"Purge is a shockingly good novel, an extremely well-written book about shudderingly ugly things."
"Oksanen describes womanhood with the most perceptive of instincts: the bud of lightness and innocence, shyness, timidity, jealousy, sincerity, cunning, shame, and silence."
Savon Sanomat (Finland)
"The slow unfolding of the plot at the beginning of the novel is a pleasure to follow. The leisurely pace of the narrative enables the reader to remain in the minds of the characters. Towards the end of the novel, Oksanen cranks up the pace. Despite the denouement feeling inevitable, Oksanen manages to surprise her reader. This merciless novel is generous in leaving blanks for its reader to fill in."
"You'd think that almost four hundred pages of endless, tragic destinies would make its reader gasp for breath; this would be true if it were not for Oksanen's writing, which is so comfortingly poetic and mild. Her prose settles like a filter over the story, making it possible for the reader to embrace."
"...a novel of love and betrayal, a tragedy of almost antique dimensions. /.../ Despite being crafted from such a rich and multilayered material, [Purge] is a work surprisingly focused, dense, logical and to the point. The various narrative levels and points of view are smoothly varied and interconnected. The novel is aptly constructed and crafted; it is cruel, compelling, and nuanced. Purge vibrates with suspense: unspoken secrets and deeply shameful deeds which the characters are either exposed to or perform themselves spreads like a web over the book, forcing the reader to go on turning the pages. /.../ The writing is vivid, precise, and beautiful."
Praise for the play Purge on which the novel is based:
"The personal drama is given razor-sharp contours, and expands to become the drama of a people, a country, and a bloody political course of events. There are no heroes here; for me, as a person who has never found herself in the line of fire, Purge appears a model situation for occupation and impossible human choices. It is a very compelling piece."
Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden)
"Sofi Oksanen's first play Purge, which unveils the recent history of Estonia, is the theater event of the season. Oksanen's viewpoint is inexorable and distinct. The pulse and density of the piece is reminiscent of a thriller, and as the evening progresses, the pace of the play is brought up. /.../ The point of view shifts between the occupation of 1945 and the 1990's, and the story is ingen-iously constructed... The ending is cathartic."
Helsingin Sanomat (Finland)