The lives of three Estonians reflect their country’s ordeal during and after World War II in the latest novel by this Finnish-Estonian author (Purge, 2010).
For the small Baltic nation, it was a triple whammy. First the Russians occupied it in 1940. The following year, the Germans invaded, and the Russians were forced out. In 1944, it was the Germans’ turn to flee; this time, the Russian occupation would last for decades. Oksanen begins her story in ’41. Roland and his cousin Edgar have returned from training in Finland to drive the Red Army out of their country. While Roland fights fearlessly, Edgar is terrified of combat, though he does have other skills. A glib talker and willing informer, he ingratiates himself with the Germans, initially seen as liberators, and forges papers, giving himself a German name. Unable or unwilling to have sex with his wife, Juudit, he lives apart from her. Roland’s situation is worse. He learns his fiancee, Rosalie, has killed herself and is buried in an unmarked grave. Suspecting foul play, he vows to track down her killer. Juudit meanwhile has fallen in love with an SS officer and moved into his house. So far so good, with three characters clearly delineated: The honorable Roland, Estonia’s conscience; Edgar, a world-class creep; and the conflicted Juudit, who sleeps with a German while helping Roland smuggle refugees. Narrative momentum evaporates with a series of fast forwards to the much less volatile and engaging 1963-65 period, when Edgar has yet another identity as a tireless communist propagandist, a reluctant Juudit is back with him, and Roland has vanished. Camp horrors under the Nazis are dealt with perfunctorily, and the mystery of Rosalie’s death is not revealed until the very end; so much for the revenge motif.
Fascinating material that’s marred by the lack of an angle or perspective.