Aliide is an elderly widow living in an isolated house in a half-deserted Estonian village in the early 1990’s. One day she finds a young girl collapsed outside her house and, against her better judgement (who might be watching and who will they tell?), she brings the“dishrag of a girl” into her home where she, warily and sparingly, provides some nourishment and general aid. About all we know for sure for some time is that the girl’s name is Zara and she is from Vladivostok. Over the course of the novel we travel backwards and forwards in time to learn the histories of the women who have both had traumatic experiences which have left deep physical and psychological scars.

Purge isn’t only a story of violence and abuse perpetrated against its two protagonists but is testament to the ease with which such behaviour has always been, and is still, accepted as the natural way of things in many cultures. Its sadness lies not only in the stories of two women but in the fact that these stories are shared by so many (we did, after all, just observe the international day for the elimination of violence against women). However the strength of the novel lies in the clever and engaging way Oksanen teases out the stories and compels the reader to discover how the two women ended up where they were. Aliide’s story in particular also plays out against the backdrop of some momentous events in the region’s history, including the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and there is a very credible depiction of the impact of these events on the day-to-day lives of the average person. This aspect of the novel made me realise how little I know about these events from recent history when compared with events in western Europe or America.

The two central characters are very strong though not, perhaps contrary to expectations, entirely likeable. Aliide is an especially prickly character and while some of this is explained by the horrific traumas she has experienced there are other things which cannot be so easily justified. I liked the fact she was portrayed in this way as it made her far more believable than I think she would have been without these very human flaws. The secondary characters, including the various people who torment the two women are also well-drawn and all too credible.

The story itself was well told and relatively easy to follow despite its somewhat choppy nature though I have to admit I thought the ending somewhat awkward and rushed. I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book and they all seem to take a different message or theme from their reading which is the sign of a really great book. For myself I thought it spoke beautifully about the dangers of longing for something (or someone) you can’t have, the lengths humans will go to for self-preservation and I enjoyed reflecting on the various implications of the novel’s title. It is, in parts, a harrowing read but a highly rewarding one.

Kustantaja/merkki:    Atlantic Books
Oksanen, Sofi

Kansityyppi:     nidottu
Kieli:     englanti
Sivuja:     400
Kirjastoluokka:     FA
Asiasana:     Modern fiction , Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)

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