There are lots of good and even excellent novels. But really stunning, exceptional novels are rare. Purge (original title Puhdistus), written by Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen, a writer mostly unknown in the English-speaking world, is such a novel. Purge is her third novel, and has received a lot of well-deserved attention. With this book, Oksanen (born 1977) was the first ever writer to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg. Then this marvelous piece of writing went on to win the Nordic Council Literature Prize as well.
Purge is mostly quiet and almost laconic in its tone. In a subdued fashion it tells the stories of the lives of two seemingly unrelated women in Estonia over a span of more than forty years. A major part of the story is about the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu who has lived her whole adult life in an Estonia that was part of the Soviet Union; an Estonia dominated by the Communist party where neighbors and colleagues spied on one another. Another part of the story is about the young Zara – a victim of sex trafficking in the West who has escaped her captors.
Under the quiet surface of the language Oksanen has adopted for the book vibrates a world full of tensions, secrets, shame and tragedies. Aliide, like so many other women in countries dominated by males with unchecked power, has lived a life full of trials and struggle. Yet it is not the hardships she has suffered that make the strongest impression in this book: It is rather the consequences of living under the kind of strain she has experienced – her willingness to sacrifice, her stunning ability to go on, and the role and importance of love and hope in exceptionally miserable conditions.
And therein lays the stunning power of this novel: gradually, as the amazingly composed story in Purge – moving back and forth in time and space like a multidimensional jigsaw-puzzle – lifts the veil and lets the stories behind the stories be revealed the story changes and becomes somehow grander and deeper. And more and more it becomes a story of how the fear, due to the uncontrolled and almost limitless power over destinies that the Communist party had, through decades of debasement, have permeated society and twisted minds in the former USSR. Behind the stories of rape, sexual abuse and violence are the stories of shame: shameful revelations and repellent intimacies. And stories of never-ending fights for dignity.
Purge is one of the best novels I have read in a very long time. It starts a little bit slow, but as the stories under, beneath and beyond begin to reveal themselves, the text is transformed into a strange, fascinating, multi-layered landscape, rich and in some ways so ugly that it becomes spell-binding. I consider this book to be a powerful masterpiece, one of the best novels of the decade!
“A bravura work, deeply engaged with [Estonia’s] knotted history, sparing but potent in its use of irony, and containing an empathic treatment of all the miserable choices Estonians faced during their periods of oppression. . . . Oksanen has crafted a stirring and humane work of art.”—Jacob Silverman, The New Republic
“Purge is that very rare thing, a sheer masterpiece . . . A marvel . . . I hope that everyone in the world who knows how to read, reads Purge.”–Nancy Huston, author of Fault Lines
“[A] bold combination of history, politics, and suspense.”—Sunday Times (UK)
“Purge is a breathtaking novel dense with emotion that snares the reader from the very first pages. . . . Moving and horrifying, it leaves you shuddering and gasping for breath.”—Ilkka (Finland)
“The multidimensionality of Purge is startling. . . . [The novel] encompasses the grand themes . . . [of] shame, betrayal, guilt, atonement . . . with the complexity and seriousness worthy of them.”—Turun Sanomat (Finland)
“The first chapter of Purge displays the most condensed, metaphorically effective language I have read in a long time. . . . Oksanen’s beautiful prose breaks the silence of the shame and guilt of oppression,”—Aftonbladet (Sweden)