Two refugees of Estonia’s Soviet occupation collide with one another.
Likely driven by the new thirst for European thrillers in the vein of Steig Larsson, this wonderfully subtle thriller by one of Finland’s young emerging talents has found its way to English-speaking shores. The Finnish-Estonian novelist and playwright’s American debut captures both the tragic consequences of one of Europe’s biggest conflicts and the universal horrors that war inflicts on women. The novel opens with Aliide Truu, a woman of a certain age living a quiet life in 1992: “It was quiet, the way it’s quiet in late summer in a dying Estonian village—a neighbor’s rooster crowed, that was all. The silence had been peculiar that year—expectant, yet at the same time like the aftermath of a storm.” But underneath Aliide’s placid exterior lies the heart of a survivor, one who isn’t pleased to find a half-starved runaway in her front yard. Her motherly instincts are almost nil. “She ought to get a new dog. Or two,” writes Oksanen of her heroine’s initial reaction. In time, her new ward reveals her story—the girl is Zara, a sex-trafficking casualty on the run from the Russian mafia. But Zara’s only possessions open up another mystery: a card with the Estonian address of the place her grandmother was born, and an old photograph of two young girls signed, “For Aliide, from her sister.” From these thin strands, Oksanen masterfully weaves together the tale of Aliide’s treacherous family history in the late 1940s, with Zara’s unspeakable treatment at the hands of her tormentors, and ultimately Aliide’s part in Zara’s salvation. With a tone somewhere between Ian McEwan’s Atonement and the best of the current crop of European crime novelists, this bitter gem promises great things from the talented Oksansen.
A family history like many family histories—neither pretty, victimless or straightforward.