Purge – Sofi Oksanen

There are some books that I read where I simply want to type ‘you need to read this book’ a few hundred times instead of actually doing a review and ‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen is one such book. Of course I wouldn’t expect you to go off and buy a book just on my say so and of course I shall be giving you my thoughts rather than simply copying and pasting ‘you need to read this book’ over and over again. Can you pick up any subliminal messages I might be leaving in this opening paragraph at all?

‘Purge’ is going to be rather a hard book to write about in part because of how big the story is (not in terms of pages just in terms of story and subject matter) or because some of the book is harrowing to say the least but also because to give too much away with this story, I think, would lessen the impact it could have on a reader coming to it and to do that to a book/reading experience such as this would be a disservice. Anyway let’s see how we get on.

Aliide Truu lives a slightly solitary life near woods in the Estonian countryside. One morning after waging a war with a fly, which initially you think are the only bane in her life – you’d be thinking wrong, she spots something in her garden. That something turns out to be young woman, one who is wearing expensive clothes and yet is covered in dirt and bruised, a young woman who has appeared under her tree in the dead of night, a girl Aliide knows she shouldn’t take in because you can almost feel the danger coming from her, and yet Aliide does.

Slowly but surely as Aliide spends the following day or so with the girl, Zara, both Zara’s recent horrific past (the fact this setting is the early nineties was quite shocking for me) starts to unfold as  does Aliide’s which is a past with her sister over fifty years ago which she has wiped from her brain and buried deep elsewhere. As we read on two stories unfold that look at the history of Estonia and its women, the trials they have had to face and how they endured and survived. I shall say no more on the plot other than I think this is a tale that needs to be told and therefore to be read and heard by us no matter how difficult it can get in parts.

Sofia Oksanen has written something quite amazing. It is a rare book that takes me on such an emotional journey and to such dark places and yet leaves me almost unable to put the book down. Her prose is absolutely stunning (and here I should credit Lola Rogers on a fantastic translation) and without ever being too graphic she manages to drop in enough information to let the reader work out what’s going on and yet leave enough unsaid that we create the scenes in our own minds which is often the more disturbing and effective than spelling everything out.

Her two main characters Aliide and Zara are incredible creations. One initially a rather eccentric old lady living alone becomes a kind of unsung heroine, the other a girl who dreamed of a better life and took the opportunities to get there naively and with dark consequences yet who is a survivor. These characters make what could have just become a completely harrowing book (and it’s not because there are some moments of humour here and there) a book that is really about triumph and how people can and will cope when pushed to the edge. It’s also a tale about families.

“That smile became their first game, which sprouted word by word and started to blossom mistily, yellowish, the way dead languages blossom, rustling sweetly like the needle of a gramophone, playing like voices underwater. Quiet, whispering, they grew their own language. It was their shared secret, their game. As her mother did housework, her grandmother would sit in her usual chair, and Zara would take out toys and other things or just touch an object, and Grandmother would form its name in Estonian, silently, with her lips. If the word was wrong, Zara was supposed to notice it. If she didn’t know the word, she wouldn’t get any candy, but if she caught the mistake, she always got a mouthful of sweets. Her mother didn’t like it that Grandmother gave her candy for no reason – or so she thought – but she didn’t bother to intervene beyond a disapproving sniff.”

I strongly urge people to give this book a go. I don’t think books like this come around that often and it really needs to become a success worldwide (it’s already done very well in the rest of Europe). No its not a cosy read for these darker nights but it’s a gripping story that we all need to be told and one that Sofi Oksanen tells in a rather breath taking fashion. A must, must, must read book that may leave you changed a little after the final page. 10/10

I know some of you might now say that you would like to read this but it might be too disturbing and I hope you will look past that and test yourselves. I don’t mean that in a patronising way it’s just sometimes books need to test us and take us places that we don’t want to go. So I thought I would not only ask if anyone else has read this (have you?) but also for you to name me some books which have made for uncomfortable reading in parts but been an incredible and overall almost life changing experience to read as I would love some more recommendations of books along the lines of ‘Purge’?


Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2010, Review, Sofi Oksanen

41 responses to “Purge – Sofi Oksanen

  1. Wow, a 10 out of 10? You have certainly told me enough to make me want more, that is for sure. I don’t generally shy away from too many things (dying animals and dying children are two things I don’t particularly want to read though), and I actually enjoy a book that makes me squirm. One in particular that just plain wore me out was “We Need To Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver.

    • I need to give We Need To Talk About Kevin another go at some point.

      Back to Purge though and I still now think this is one of my favourite books of 2010 without question, I have still been thinking about it and even wanted to turn to it again so its one that I would recommend to everyone and anyone.

  2. I enjoyed this book too, picked up on a whim when browsing in Foyles last week. It had me researching Estonian history because I knew absolutely nothing about the country. A fascinating read, quite dark in places. I plan on reviewing it this coming weekend – or maybe sooner if I can find the energy!

  3. From recent books was The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński a read that changed my view on wars. I’ve never been in a war, I’ve only witnessed the terrible 90’s you could read about in Purge. The Painted Bird was too disturbing to quit, for my own sanity I had to find out the ending. Luckily it was quite thin.
    And also Baghdad Burning, a blog and a book, made me rethink every news coming from war zones. It’s not so well written, as it is a blog but it gaves you another point of view.
    And also a book by lithuanian author Balys Sruoga The Forest of Gods. I hope it is translated into english.

  4. This was one of those books I’d seen around but had always passed by. But if you’re rating it 10/10, obviously I need to track down a copy and read it!

  5. “Purge” is such powerful word to me – full of depth and implication. Sounds like the book lives up to the same expectation. You’ve done your work for me – it is on my TBR list. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

    • Thanks very much Elisabeth, sorry am so late to replying time seems to have escaped me of late. Purge is indeed a brilliant word and the perfect title for this book, something that you can’t often say about a book. Its marvellous.

  6. From where on earth do you dig up these wonderful books. I am still trying to get hold of One Day and now you spring another must have!!!!

    Thank you for a wonderful review.

    • This was sent to me by the publishers I had eyed it up in a book shop (where I bought nothing) from the cover alone, in this case the marvellous cover does justice to the marvellous book.

  7. Thanks for the great recommendation. I, in turn, would suggest Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants: heartbreakingly brilliantly done.

  8. I’m happy to report that this book is on my tbr list. I really must pick it up asap, apparently!

  9. It sounds a wonderful book. I will endeavour to track this down and read it. Many thanks for your review.

  10. I received a copy of this last week and was wanting to read it but now I simply must read it asap (I was completely impervious to those subliminal messages you were sending out, Simon!)

    Precious came to mind when you spoke of uncomfortable books that people should test themselves by reading. I personally love devastating books and think Toni Morrison is a must-read despite the sometimes dark and challenging subject matter. I also loved -but found them distressing- Fall on Your Knees by Ann Marie MacDonald and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Oh, and although not fiction, Lucky by Alice Sebold is a book that although I found upsetting was worth the pain (and that was about seven years ago but left an impression).

    • I definitely agree we could all do with a devastating read now and again. I have to say at the moment one might tip me over the edge but I do like one now and again to remind me how reading sometimes needs to take you completely out of your comfort zone.

      Thanks for those recommendations.

  11. Thanks, Simon. I’ve added this to my books on hold at the library.

  12. One of the book clubs to which I belong read this book a few months ago. One of our members is from Finland and we expressed an interest in trying to read an English translation of some Finnish book. She selected this book and all of us loved it! I too knew next to nothing about Estonia and it prompted me to try to read up on the country and the culture. Another great selection on your part!

  13. novelinsights

    This sounds like a brilliant book and one that is probably quite different too. Definitely one I’ll be adding to the TBR soon!

  14. I have this and started it and then put it to one side because I was finding it too upsetting to read! You have encouraged me to pick it up again (gulp!)

    • It is very upsetting in parts and quite, quite shocking but its a book that does it for a reason rather than simply to shock and when its valid it can be an incredible reading experience as this book is.

  15. Sold! Never heard of it before, but it sounds fantastic – and is now on the wishlist. Thanks for the recommendation, it’s always fun to come across new titles in the blogosphere!

    • Its not had too much coverage yet which is a shame in some ways as it needs to be much better known because its so brilliant, then again its a nice little secret great read too.

  16. Pops on list. I’ve got to mention ‘The Great Stink’ by Clare Clark as a book that was very disturbing (Victorian mental institutions and self harm) but well worth it for the characetrs and the impact of the emotional struggle.

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  19. I’v just finished reading this book and like you I couldn’t put it down. It was disturbing yet beautifully written and I cared very deeply for these women!! I’m so glad I just pick it of the shelf with out too much thought. this is a book a shall remember for a long while!!

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  22. Leslie

    This book was a random pick at the Cottage Book store in Glen Arbor, Michigan. Bought it yesterday and am almost finished. Couldn’t put it down! I completely agree with your comments and will be recommending it for both of my book clubs. Knew nothing about Estonian history but loved learning a bit about it. Also loved the way the story unfolded. These characters will stick with me for a long time! Such a rare treat to find this kind of a read while vacationing. Love it!

  23. Curious Estonian here (Oksanen is an half Estonian and part of what she is doing in the book has to do with current politics, with some politicians in Finland insisting that the Soviet occupation of Estonia was not that bad … but that, I suppose, is just too much information). Look at some Estonian faces and wonder: “Were their grandparents among the executioners of the executed during the time around the WW II?”

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