Purge by Sofi Oksanen
27th Apr 2011
The story begins in an Estonian forest in 1992, when an elderly widow, Aliide, finds a strange young woman, Zara, outside her house. Though Aliide agrees to protect her, she is mystified: why has the girl come to her?
Sofi Oksanen uses flashbacks to alternate between the immediate crisis, Zara’s recent past, and the unravelling of Aliide’s many secrets, set against the backdrop of Estonia’s troubled history, from World War II and the Russian invasion to the slow collapse of the Soviet Empire.
What emerges is trauma: both women have been horribly abused, and yet, miraculously, they survive.
Though many miles and years apart, their shared experience of terror, pain and loss helps them to form an unspoken bond.
There are occasional scenes of brutal violence, but for the most part, fear is conveyed by stealth.
To Zara, hope is symbolised by a pair of sheer silk stockings. Aliide, a bad cook, is plagued by flies that spoil her food. Like a witch in a modern fairytale, she has the power to heal, or harm, with the herbs and plants that grow in the forest.
To Zara, hope is symbolised by a pair of sheer silk stockings. The lure of money, and a chance to escape poverty, leads her into sexual slavery.
Her debasement is captured on video, as blackmail. Her bruised innocence makes her readily sympathetic, and she faces life on the run with bewildered courage.
For each woman, survival is achieved by putting the truth on hold. When Aliide is tortured, she tells nobody. As a prostitute, Zara is given a false name. Like Aliide, she is ashamed.
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Aliide’s journey is even darker than Zara’s. Consumed by jealousy, Aliide resents her only sister, and clings to her fugitive brother-in-law. Unrequited love turns to bitterness and if Aliide’s fall from grace is chilling, she is also a tragic figure.
Purge has been compared to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, and it certainly rivals that series in menace. But Sofi Oksanen surpasses even Larsson with sheer imagination and empathy. Lola Rogers’ translation showcases Oksanen’s uncanny style.
‘Those who deny history are doomed to repeat it,’ runs the tagline, and though Purge begins and ends in mystery, it will linger in the mind long after the final page is turned.