Friday, February 26, 2016

Review of When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen (2015, Atlantic; 2012 Finnish)

Estonia, 1941, and the Russians are retreating.  Having trained in Finland, Roland and his cousin, Edgar, initially a collaborator with the Russians, are fighting with fellow Estonians in the forests, hoping that country might once again gain independence.  Their two wives, Rosalie and Juudit, await their return.  Instead of freedom the Germans become the new occupiers.  While Roland continues in the independence movement, Edgar takes on a new identity and cosies up to the Germans, still driven by a desire to gain and wield power, becoming active in the running of the forced labour camps.  Abandoned by her husband, Juudit falls in love with a SS officer, while still aiding the idealistic Roland.  Twenty years later, Roland has seemingly vanished and Juudit is an alcoholic and still locked in a loveless marriage to Edgar, who after serving time in Siberia has become a Soviet apparatchik.  Edgar is desperate to continue to hide his past and when he’s asked to write a book about Estonian collaborators he sees a way to rewrite history and tidy up some loose ends.

When the Doves Disappeared charts the entangled lives of three Estonians during the Second World War and twenty years later.  Roland is idealistic and desires a return to independence, resisting both Russians and Germans.  Edgar is a ruthless toady, constantly scheming to curry favour and gain recognition, first working for the Russians, then the Germans, and back to the Russians.  Juudit is naïve and craves love and freedom, falling for a German SS officer but still helping Roland and fleeing refugees.  In turn they represent the different positions of Estonians during successive waves of occupation, resistance, and collaboration.  Oskanen maps out their intersecting lives, shuttling back and forth between the years 1941-44 and 1963-66, documenting the ongoing struggles and betrayals of family and country.  While it takes a little bit of time for this narrative strategy to bed in, the result is a compelling, bleak, haunting and thought-provoking black drama that explores themes of love, loyalty, treachery, tragedy and freedom.  A story that packs a punch at multiple levels.

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