I first heard about Sofi Oksanen's Purge through Willa's blog, and as soon as I read her review of it I knew I had to read it for myself. Finally, almost four months later, I managed to get my hands on a copy. Set in Estonia during the 1940s and 1990s, it is the story of two women who have both suffered abuse.
Aliide Truu is living an old-fashioned life in rural Estonia, cut off from all her neighbours. She is happy being self-sufficient until she finds Zara, a badly beaten woman, in her garden. As Aliide begins to help Zara, she is forced to look back on her own past and involvement with both the Estonian Nationalist Movement and the Soviet state. Zara is a young Russian-Estonian girl who is visited by a friend and promised a luxurious life in the west, only to be sold as a sex slave and kept captive.
Purge is not an easy story to read. Both women go through experiences that you could only describe as horrific and some of the things that happen to Zara in particular will make your stomach churn. Aliide's story doesn't hide from the use of rape as an interrogation technique by Soviet forces. These experiences are described graphically but not gratuitously by Oksanen, and you really feel for both women.
I went into the story knowing that there would be descriptions of sexual abuse, but for me the most disturbing thing about this book was the character of Aliide herself. Oksanen slowly reveals more and more about her and her thought processes with the result that she has created a wonderfully three dimensional and distasteful character; at times I felt very sorry for Aliide but at other times I felt disgusted with her. I didn't guess the revelation about her that comes in the closing section, and I felt that this was very clever of Oksanen.
Despite dealing with difficult subjects, Purge is definitely a worthwhile read. I finished it a few days ago and yet my mind is still buzzing with thoughts about it. It has illuminated a chapter of European history I knew very little about. Purge is also a page turner, I found it almost impossible to put this book down as I was desperate to find out what would happen to Zara and why Aliide was the way she was. It's a book that has a great impact and I would strongly recommend it.
Verdict: Powerful story of the abuse of two women in Estonia.
Score: 5 out of 5