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18 june 2011

Blurber Nancy Huston says on the cover of the American edition of Sofi Oksanen's novel: "I hope that everyone in the world who knows how to read, reads Purge." Even if Purge is eventually translated into the 29 languages its flap copy promises, it's going to need some serious hype to reach the couple or three billion literate world citizens. Meanwhile the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter says of the 34-year-old Oksanen: "The Nobel Prize in a few years. If one is allowed to guess." This is heavy artillery for even the usually hyperbolic culture of the blurb.

Does Purge merit the hype? More descriptive is a blurb from the Library Journal, saying that Purge will appeal to "fans of classic Russian writers like Tolstoy and Pasternak." The action of Purge spans more than a half-century in the life of a nation, as exemplified by the tragedy of a very unhappy family. It is a "condition of Estonia" novel – well, I say "a"; though there are doubtless others, it's the first condition-of-Estonia novel I've read. As a condition-of-any-nation novel, it's fine work: a suspenseful novel of ideas, with precise local and historical detail.

I have been intrigued by Estonia since seeing the recent film Sügisball – itself a condition-of-Estonia movie. Sügisball is no masterpiece, but it conveys, in black humor, sharp violence, and overall brooding, the ennui of a culture so trodden-down by decades of invasion and captivity that the post-Soviet opening to the west seems like a cruel joke before the next shoe drops and the country spirals back into despair. More hopeful is the documentary The Singing Revolution, which provides context important to both Sügisball and Purge. Estonians under both Nazi and Soviet occupation preserved their culture and their nationalism by means of a culture of folksongs and song festivals. And by taking to the woods and carrying on fanatical armed resistance, though the impact of that fighting took a mostly symbolic form. (By contrast, song festivals provided a highly practical function, a venue for assembly and protest that eventually detached the country from the Soviet Union.)

Purge translates the large social movements of 20th-century Estonian history into intrafamilial terms. Two women, old and young, Aliide and Zara, meet under mysterious circumstances in 1992. (To be specific, Zara appears in Aliide's front yard in Estonia, crumpled into an exhausted heap.) Aliide is Zara's great aunt, but she doesn't know that yet; Zara knows little more about Aliide. Zara has come from the other end of the world – Vladivostok in the Far East – by way of Berlin, where she's been a postwall Russian prostitute. But Aliide, who has barely left her native village, has been further in emotional terms.

Aliide has done unacceptable things to survive world war and Stalinism. Among others, she's responsible for Zara growing up in Vladivostok, a place that makes Siberia look neighborly by comparison. But Aliide herself has been abused to the breaking point. She has her Scarlett O'Hara, never-go-hungry again moment, and she wreaks the kind of havoc on her family that makes Scarlett O'Hara look like Mother Teresa.

But Aliide is also as tough as twenty-penny nails. Zara, fleeing a couple of murderous whoremasters (and demonstrating the family flint in doing so), needs Aliide to be heroic. And despite her unspeakability, Aliide is the hero of the story. Aliide makes some very hurtful choices in her life, often out of lust and greed. But precisely because she's so given to mortal sin, the reader finds it hard not to root for her at key moments.

The flaw in Purge that keeps me from recommending it to every literate living human is its ending. After some startlingly dramatic scenes, Oksanen chooses to end the book with a faux-documentary approach, using fictive archival texts to "explain" the backstory. I didn't get the point of this; it doesn't work as drama or as political commentary. (But then, I'm not Estonian, am I?)

Until you get to the documents, though, you will have no problem agreeing with those who compare Oksanen's work to the great Russians, or that she has it in her to win some major international prizes. She's already won some for Purge, as well as some national prizes in Finland. The latter fact is an interesting footnote. Like Aliide's daughter Talvi in the novel, Oksanen lives in Finland; she writes in Finnish. Her perspective seems deeply Estonian – of course, given my distance from the Baltic, it might not seem so Estonian to the Estonians. But she assesses the condition of her native country from the expatriate perspective of Helsinki.

Oksanen, Sofi. Purge. [Puhdistus, 2008.] Translated by Lola Rogers. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2010.