Saturday, January 7, 2012


Author: Sofi Oksanen
Grover Press, Black Cat, 2010
320 pages

I want to start out with a confession: This book blew me away, and I was not prepared for that. I knew that Purge was: 1) set in the country of Estonia; and 2) written by a young author from Finland -- but that's really all I knew before I read it. I've never been to Estonia (but I've been to Finland) and I don't know much about the history of Estonia or the Baltic states. But none of that mattered because I was transported there, and now I feel as if I've been there many times.

The story revolves around two women, Aliide and Zara. In the present day (which is really the early 1990s), Aliide is an old woman who lives alone in a rural area of Estonia, and Zara is a young woman from Vladivostok in far-eastern Russia. One rainy morning, Aliide looks out her window and sees something in her front yard. When she goes outside to investigate, she finds Zara, who is barely conscious, dirty, and covered with bruises. Aliide struggles with whether or not to help Zara, but decides to bring her into her home and take care of her.

Through a combination of voices in mostly alternating chapters, we learn their life stories. Aliide's is a woeful tale of sibling rivalry and star-crossed lovers in parallel with the history of 20th century Estonia. Zara is a victim of the sex-trafficking industry between Russia and Western Europe (in her case, Germany) and is now being pursued by her ruthless Russian captors. The women have much in common. They've both made some bad decisions. They've both been used and abused. They're both survivors. But those aren't the only things they have in common, as we'll learn from a secret photo that Zara keeps tucked into her bra.

Purge refers not only to the title of the book, but to the political purges that occurred during the Soviet occupations of Estonia in the early 1940s. Many Estonian nationals disappeared. Some were forcibly removed to Siberia or other places in Russia to be "rehabilitated." Others went into hiding, escaped to Finland or another country, or were killed. To say that it was a very bad time would be a major understatement.

There are several other literary references to Purge throughout the book. Both Aliide and Zara have things they need to purge from their pasts in order to heal -- if indeed healing is possible. We're not really sure it is, at least not in the traditional sense, as the book's ending only leaves hints of an ending. Or perhaps a new beginning, which is what will soon be happening to Estonia (during the early 1990s).

Although Purge is classified as a thriller in many circles (and it certainly has its "thrilling" moments), I'd recommend it more for fans of historical fiction, women's literary fiction, or world literature. It would be an excellent choice for a literary book club. I wish I knew someone else who's read it, because I'd love to chat about it! There's so much more I'd like to write about Purge, but instead, I'll just end with this statement:

This is a book that's going to stay with me for a while.