Shortly before I read Purge, I heard an academic on the radio talking about how, for all its dangers and privations, the 1939-45 war was "straightforward" for Britain and its people. This remark was made in the context of a former Ukrainian soldier and UK immigrant, who had essentially survived the war only because he had chosen, when captured, to fight for the German army rather than go to a camp.
"At least the British always knew who the enemy was," the academic said, and I paraphrase, "for many Europeans on the ever-moving front line between Germany and Russia, life was much more complicated."
I kept this thought in mind throughout Sofi Oksanen's Purge, a clever, subtle psychological thriller which tells the story of two women trapped between nations and ideologies, forced into compromise and crime in the desperate battle for survival. The first, Aliide, is an Estonian peasant who spends the latter part of the war and then the Cold War locked in a loveless marriage with a Party official as she seeks to hide a secret past and present that represents imminent danger to her. The second, Zara, is a young Russian woman who leaves poverty and boredom in the east for freedom in the west only to find that her freedom holds its own awful price - sexual slavery.
The story evolves in parallel with the relationship between the two women, after Zara arrives on Aliide's doorstep bloodied and beaten, fleeing for her life. As the two women spar their way through a suspicious and largely silent introduction, their stories unfold through trips back to their earlier lives. Zara has her head turned by a flashy friend returning to their hometown, dripping with gold, telling stories of the riches within her reach.
Meanwhile Aliide journeys through Estonia's painful past and the transition from German occupation to Soviet state to fledgling democracy. Each regime demands its own sacrifice for personal survival, and throw Aliide into conflict either with the state, her neighbours even her family. The Soviet era is particularly fraught with danger as petty jealousies and ancient grudges are pursued through insidious betrayal to the secret police.
The banality and pointlessness of so much of the surveillance and snitching is in direct contrast to the devastating impact it has on lives and families. The climate of fear and suspicion reduces individuals either to party clones or to shells of their former selves - terrified of everyone and everything, even their own thoughts.
And so this is not just the story of Aliide and Zara, of course, it is the story of Estonia and countless other nations caught in the frontline between conflicting ideologies and eras.
Purge has a sort of stealthy brilliance that crept up on me and took an iron grip that I didn't notice until I neared its breathless finale. But brilliant it undoutedly is, seamlessly combining the agonising struggling of the individual with the crushing weight of important themes.
Inevitably, given that the writer - a young woman of Finnish/Estonian extraction - is from the Nordic region, she will be lumped in with the great Scandinavian crime wave currently taking over the globe. And while that might well help build Sofi Oksanen's profile and sales, on the evidence of this book she does not fit into this category (just as Finland is not part of Scandinavia). And that's not a value judgement, just a warning: don't come here expecting the new Larsson or Nesbo. Oksanen has a fresh voice, one that I look forward to hearing more from.