Monday, May 7, 2012

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: May 4, 2012

An international sensation, Sofi Oksanen's award-winning novel Purge is a breathtakingly suspenseful tale of two women dogged by their own shameful pasts and the dark, unspoken history that binds them. When Aliide Truu, an older woman living alone in the Estonian countryside, finds a disheveled girl huddled in her front yard, she suppresses her misgivings and offers her shelter. Zara is a young sex-trafficking victim on the run from her captors, but a photo she carries with her soon makes it clear that her arrival at Aliide's home is no coincidence. Survivors both, Aliide and Zara engage in a complex arithmetic of suspicion and revelation to distill each other's motives; gradually, their stories emerge, the culmination of a tragic family drama of rivalry, lust, and loss that played out during the worst years of Estonia's Soviet occupation. Sofi Oksanen establishes herself as one the most important voices of her generation with this intricately woven tale, whose stakes are almost unbearably high from the first page to the last. Purge is a fiercely compelling and damning novel about the corrosive effects of shame, and of life in a time and place where to survive is to be implicated.

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Even now, a few days after finishing Oksanen’s Purge, I am not sure how exactly how I feel about the story. Well, that’s not entirely true. I know how I feel. It’s sort of an “eh, umm, huh” kind of feeling. Problem is that doesn’t give me much to work with when comes to constructing a review. 

The murky undertones of the piece are provocative to say the least, but I think the graphic nature of the content is a bit of a turn off for those unwilling to examine or even acknowledge the dark underbelly of society. From Zara’s treatment as a trafficked sex slave to Aliide’s experiences both during and after Soviet occupation, the story is designed to make you think about survival, shame, enmity and dishonor in terms most of us have never considered. Personally, I like that Oksanen isn’t afraid to go where she does. I’m not necessarily drawn to the explicitness of her work, but I can appreciate the technique as necessary in exploring the themes of the piece. 

Despite my admiration for the emotional content of the book, I felt it lacking in other areas. For example, I feel the exploration of human nature took precedence over character development. Oksanen presents Zara and Aliide in a very straight forward manner and try as I might, I couldn’t find it in me to accept the impersonal depictions of individuals experiencing such extreme circumstances. I think that establishing a connection between the characters and the reader would have really enhanced the power of what Oksanen was attempting to express through her narrative.

Additionally, I felt the writing style was difficult to navigate. Creatively artistic, but functionally problematic. Oksanen jumps between characters and time frames at will with little or no exposition. She throws bits of information at the reader, leaving them to piece together an often times incomplete picture of events. It is enough to understand what is happening but it is far from ideal. 

Finally, I have to acknowledge the disadvantage I felt while reading Purge. I can’t speak for all Americans but our exposure to European history is rather limited. Prior to reading Oksanen’s work, I had only vague notions of the political events described in the book. I don’t blame the author for my lack of familiarity with the subject, but I think it is worth noting that book poses certain challenges for those less acquainted Estonian history.  

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She couldn’t brush it away like she ought to have done. Instead it seeped in between the wallpaper paste, into the gaps left behind by the photographs that she had hidden there and later destroyed. The fear settled in as though it felt at home. As though is would never go away. As though it had just been out somewhere for a while and had come home for the evening.
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Sam (Tiny Library) said...

This is one of my favourite books all time, so this comment might be a bit biased :P

Whilst I agree that there isn't too much in the way of character development, I love the way that Aliide's true character was slowly revealed as the book went on.

Like you I didn't know much about Estonian history before starting this but luckily I had studied the rise & fall of the Soviet Union at school (I'm British) so maybe that helped me appreciate it more?

Anonymous said...

I wasn't a fan, but I can agree with you on that point. I do like that Aliide wasn't an open book from the first page.

We don't really get into the Soviet Union over here. Its pretty sad. Most everything I know came out of books I picked up for fun. :(