Book Review: ‘Purge’
Rarely do we read a book that is so taut and well written that, despite desperately wanting to know what happens in the end, we restrain ourselves from skipping to the last few pages. Not because it would give away the end, but because that shortcut would rob us of some superb storytelling. Sofi Oksanen’s Purge is one of those books.
Set between 1936 and 1992, Purge is the story of two women, one Estonian and one Russian. Aliide Truu, the Estonian, is an old woman who has seen her country flutter in various ideological winds, from Fascism to Communism. She’s nursed her broken heart and hardened her traumatised mind to the point where nothing rattles her anymore. Zara mysteriously lands up on Aliide’s doorstep and carries in her battered, frightened young body the story of Soviet Russia of the 1990s. Aliide doesn’t know Zara is her sister’s granddaughter. Zara doesn’t know Aliide has her own share of gory, dark secrets that she can’t reveal to anyone. Punctuating the women’s stories are traditional Estonian recipes and the scribbled notes of Hans Pekk. He is Aliide’s brother in-law, Zara’s grandfather, a Fascist supporter who was forced to go underground once the Germans were defeated in World War II, and the one love of Aliide’s life.
Through these three perspectives, Oksanen pieces together a vivid and poignant portrait of a history that is barely remembered, and a country that few can point out on the European map. As the characters reveal all that they have witnessed, survived and done, the questions begin to pile up. Aliide isn’t quite the good samaritan she appears to be and neither does Zara fit the traditional mould of a damsel in distress. Even minor characters are crafted with layers and complexity. Rather than heroes and villains, Purge is about whom you can’t help but sympathise with while hoping against hope for a happy ending.
Purge was originally written in Finnish, received much critical praise and became a European bestseller. Thanks to Lola Rogers’ superb English translation, it’s easy to see why. It is a strongly political novel that bemoans the way Estonia has been marauded in modern times by generations of oppressive regimes, but never becomes preachy or maudlin. Oksanen’s descriptions are beautiful, with an easy lyricism that is never laboured. You can almost taste the fruit from which Aliide makes preserves and when Oksanen describes the sharpness of the pickles, your eyes water sympathetically. Despite the specific setting, there’s a wonderful intimacy in the storytelling that makes it much more than the story of one woman or one country. Purge draws in the reader and makes us an invisible inhabitant of Aliide’s world, a place that is a bizarre mix of idyll and nightmare. Her and Zara’s worlds become ours, and we find ourselves as helpless and trapped as they are. Except we can escape by reaching the end of the novel.
Purge by Sofi Oksanen, Atlantic Books, Rs299.
Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently developing a keen appreciation for lazy brunches and coffee breaks in Bandra while working on her freelance assignments.Tags: Book Review, Books, Deepanjana Pal, Purge, Sofi Oksanen, Special Top Story