The author is a Finn born of an Estonian mother who had emigrated in the 1970s to Finland from the Soviet Union. This novel, set in Estonia, opens in 1992 soon after the country has regained its independence. An apparently paranoid old woman, Aliide, sees Zara, a traumatized, terrified, dishevelled and almost inarticulate young woman outside her house. Aliide overcomes her paranoia and reluctantly lets Zara into the house. The atmosphere is edgy. It takes some time before we discover the horrific cause of Zara's panic (much longer still before we learn more gruesome details of her experiences and of her flight), and also why Aliide had been so suspicious; and we understand why each of them conceals the truth from the other. Zara does not let on for a while that it was not an accident that had brought her to Aliide's house.
When she does, it makes Aliide recall her life during the turbulent history of Estonia - independent after the First World War, then successively under Soviet, German, and then again Soviet occupation. During this last period, those suspected of Estonian nationalism were subjected to horrific violence perpetrated by interrogators and to deportation to Siberia. Aliide had been a suspect, but had sought safety by marrying a communist organiser. Then, driven by a life-long resentment, she had committed a terrible triple act of betrayal.
The betrayal had not brought her the rewards she had expected, and her life was a torment. Now that Estonia was independent, her past counted against her; and what Zara now told her brought her yet further painful memories. The full truth, however, will be revealed to her under chilling circumstances - and not by Zara. Part IV of the book ends with how Aliide now reacts, and brings the narrative to a conclusion.
This is where I think the book should have ended; but there is then a final Part V, which consists of series of reports by the communist agents, which I found not only utterly confusing, but totally unnecessary; and the boring style of these reports adds to their anti-climactic effect.
The story has constantly moved backward and forward in time. Many of Sofi Oksanen's descriptions have been very powerful and atmospheric; at other times they were rather far-fetched; now and again they were elliptical and it was hard to make out what exactly was happening. There were a few longueurs. But on the whole, until Part V, the tension is well maintained.
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