October 23, 2020

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Dual narratives in Estonian tale reveal plenty

Finnish author Sofi Oksanen


Finnish author Sofi Oksanen

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/2/2015 (2064 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Many Canadians would need a map to find Estonia, as well as a long plod through books to learn about it. Fortunately, When the Doves Disappeared, Estonian-Finnish author Sofi Oksanen's engaging slow burn of a novel, can now be one of those books.

When the Doves Disappeared begins with three young Estonians from the rural provinces under Russian occupation during the Second World War: the noble Roland, his two-faced cousin Edgar, and Edgar's despairing wife Juudit.

Roland deserts the Red Army and becomes a freedom fighter after his wife is mysteriously murdered; Edgar deserts as well, but disappears to reinvent himself as a German officer when the Third Reich replaces the Bolsheviks. Juudit follows Roland to the capital of Tallinn to help with the cause, but inadvertently falls in love with Hellmuth Hertz, a charming German officer who takes her as a war mistress.

The book has dual timelines, flashing between the war and the mid-1960s, when Estonia was part of the U.S.S.R. Here Edgar, having remade himself again as a handwriting expert, is writing a book upon government request outlining the horrors of the "Hitlerlist Occupation." He and Juudit have reunited, but through the years she has fallen full-force into depression and alcoholism.

Roland's whereabouts, however, remain unknown -- and this screw turns tighter on Edgar as he writes, for Roland alone knows of Edgar's past as an ersatz German. Is Roland in a mass grave? Biding his time? Has he escaped west? It's all a mystery, like much of the interim two decades.

Each flash back and forth in time slowly reveals more and more about not only the protagonists but the fate of a country caught between two totalitarian behemoths. Oksanen makes good use of her chronological device, using the twin narratives to slowly unwrap the characters' fates from both ends of history.

Oksanen doesn't shy away from portraying the horrors of war, but the book is not graphic or overtly bloody either.

When the Doves Disappeared is both short and thick, the paragraphs long but the sentences measured -- in fact, reading it amongst a diet of contemporary North American literature, the prose almost feels older, as if it would be more at home shelved with the NYRB classics (meant as a high compliment).

The ending is somewhat quiet and understated for a book so suspenseful. But perhaps that's the point.

Oksanen's sentences are mostly plain and utilitarian, but gorgeousness jumps off the page when least expected -- for instance, at the end of a serious but simple conversation about the death of Roland's wife: "Juudit was quiet. Her eyelids fluttered, a sound like birds' wings on the surface of a lake."

One complaint: While the plot never drags, sometimes the characters do. The external circumstances of their shadowy lives may shift and contort, but Edgar unfailingly remains the same cowardly louse, and Roland the same strong and upstanding fighter.

Juudit is the only one with any complex inner character development, and her slow, aching self-destruction -- seen though her eyes during German rule and then her husband's under the Soviets -- is beautifully rendered. It's a startling contrast to the men of the novel, who could've used some internal progression.

When the Doves Disappeared is the fourth novel by Oksanen. Her international renown has won her many European prizes, but her North American reach has been limited -- until now, only her most famous book, Purge, has been translated into English.

With any luck, When the Doves Disappeared will do well, and Canadians can look forward to more.


Casey Plett wrote the short story collection A Safe Girl To Love and doesn't need a map to find Estonia anymore.


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