This was actually my first “around the world” book, and it did exactly what it was supposed to: tell me about a place I’ve never been and help me experience, in a small way, things I’ve never heard about.
I’ve been dying to go to the Baltics for ages, but mostly because it seemed like they would have less expensive saunas than Finland. (No small thing, but still.) I didn’t know, until reading this book, about their long and awful occupation by the Soviets, and I didn’t know about the lingering resentments about the native collaborators—in this case, the book’s main character, Aliide.
I can’t remember the last time I read a book with such a morally challenged main character, and Aliide, whom we meet as an elderly widows, does it all — worst among her many sins (and there’s plenty to choose from) is scheme to have her sister and niece deported to Russia so she would be able to pursue her sister’s husband. One of the challenges of reading this without a deep (read: any) sense of the country’s history is understanding how truly diabolical that was, or could have been — just as American readers bring a lifetime of understanding to similar shorthands: “Mississippi in the 1960s” means something different from “the North Shore in the 1920s” or “Salem in the 1690s.” “Estonia in the 1940s” doesn’t — or at least didn’t — mean much to me.
I did find that reading “Between Shades of Gray,” the story of a Lithuanian family sent to Siberia during the same period in history, filled in some of those gaps, and the memoir of a British passport officer, stationed in Latvia, filled in more still, like this description of Russian laborers sent to work camps:
“A cattle train was standing there, its unglazed windows heavily barred and revealing wooden shelves running the length of each wagon. On the shelves lay creatures so gaunt and unkempt that unless they wore beards it was hard to tell whether they were men or women. Hands like claws, and arms and legs with the skin stretched tight against the bones were thrust through the bars, either in an effort to change an intolerably cramped position or to bring a little fresh air to aching limbs. The spectacle was so horrific that it was hard to believe that it was real.”
Once I understood that Aliide’s crimes were that severe, and her actions against her own family so unnatural—to leave them vulnerable to this chaos and inhumanity—I better understood the challenges of her redemption, with which this book is at least partially concerned.
Final verdict: I am so grateful to this book for kick-starting this project. I don’t know that otherwise I would run out to buy it.
Buy it here, maybe: Purge, by Sofi Oksanen
NEXT BOOK: LITHUANIA