Review in a nutshell: this is very very good, but if you consider reading it you’d probably want to avoid a moment when you’re worried, fragile, or down.
This book is like a very strong liquor, distilled from ripe fruits until the very best is extracted, but my, it burns the tongue, punches the stomach and leaves you with a bitter headache.
Where? Estonia, the most northern Baltic state with a complex history due to its unique culture in between Scandinavia and Russia.
When? Mainly 1992, but with flashbacks anywhere from 1941 to 1991.
I wanted to say very little about the plot, but this is clearly not enough to give anyone a proper idea. Let’s try:
A young woman from Siberia, bruised and disheveled, turns up one night in a small lonely homestead in Estonia where an elderly woman survives by canning fruits. Is it a chance encounter? Probably not. The two main characters are deeply suspicious of one another and try to learn tidbits of information without revealing their own lives. We readers, caught in between, get alternatively glimpses of the two women’s emotions, memories and reasoning as the story moves along.
That is probably as much as you need to know before embarking into this riveting novel. But if you consider it, you shouldn’t venture there without a proper warning: this is a violent story of betrayals, shame, sexual abuse, compromises made in the name of survival, at all costs. You can’t remain indifferent to this, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Because of this or despite this, it was a huge success in France and was awarded a big literary prize, Prix Femina, last year. Some people say it’s gothic on account of the writer’s eccentric look, but I don’t see it that way, especially as I remember my holidays in Estonia a few years ago. The events told in the novel are very dark indeed, but inspired from historical events and in that respect, devoid of fantasy. It’s not a gothic novel, it’s a full blown tragedy, with a little redeeming at the end to let you catch your breath.
I remember visiting a museum in Estonia that presented WWII there and how Estonians had been invaded twice over in the course of a few years, just like Poland, by Nazis then by Soviets, and at the end of the war the land was simply annexed into USSR for half a century (contrary to Poland where the state remained even if controlled by Moscow). What does that mean in the daily life of people there? Pressures, violent intimidation, suspicion, neighbors spying on each other, ratting each other out for some advantages. This, during our whole trip, was like a ghost elephant in the room, something huge never really acknowledged openly, but very much present in mind. Estonia didn’t become Russian, but it changed in its core all the same.
Oksanen, on the other hand, purges all taboos about this ghost elephant. She doesn’t shy away from showing all generations as guilty one way or another. Maybe it’s not so surprising that this book doesn’t come from an Estonian but from a Finnish writer of Estonian descent. In the novel, the old woman’s daughter lives in Finland, because “Estonia was full of people who kept saying that they should have left for Finland or Sweden during the war”, a regret “passed on to the next generation with their lullabies”. The grandmother, Aliide, is certainly the most complex character: although she can be cruel and violent we can’t help but understand her plight and what made her act that way. She wanted to live whatever the cost, and the cost indeed was very high. The price she paid not only lingers throughout her life, but has also passed to the next generation, making it a deeply pessimistic book, albeit for the small atonement at the end.
When I went there, fifteen years after the period this book is set in, the Baltic countries were very vocal in their patriotism and quite upbeat about their newly recovered independence, but upon reading Oksanen, one can’t help but wonder how many Aliide and Zara are still suffering from the consequences of these complex and seemingly unrelenting tragedies.