Friday, August 14, 2020

When the Doves Disappeared

When the Doves Disappeared / Sofi Oksanen
trans. from the Finnish by Lola Rogers
Toronto: Anansi Intl, 2015, c2012.
320 p.
If you like WWII settings, but are looking for a bit of a different angle on it, you'll probably like this one.

Set in Estonia, it follows a handful of people, mainly related, through the pre war Soviet years, to the German occupation, and back to Soviet control. It doesn't really matter who is in charge, things are terrible either way. Turning Estonians against one another and trying to destroy any sense of national identity is constant.

Edgar and his cousin Roland are fighting the Soviets with their German allies; the next chapter jumps to German occupation, in which Roland is a resistor and Edgar happily fitting himself to a  governmental position. Then another jump, to the Soviet 60s in which Edgar has once again changed his name, hidden his past as a German collaborator and is working for the Soviets, trying to expose evil German supporters from the past -- including his own cousin.

Added to the push and pull between Edgar and Roland is the presence of Edgar's wife Juudit and Roland's long lost fiancee Rosalie. Juudit is unhappy in her troubled marriage and finds love with a German officer during the occupation. But Roland is nearby to try to use her connections for the resistance's purposes. She is pressured from all sides.

The book jumps between eras in each chapter, filling in more of the missing gaps in the story each time. We learn more about each character and their relationships as we go, and every new bit illuminates what happened previously and how we are to judge the actions of each person.

I thought that this structure worked very well to create tension and interest, and surprise, too. I liked the little touch of how the change in year and government was noted at the beginning of each chapter -- there is a postage stamp with either a Soviet or German image, and a date. It's clever, especially since Edgar is a master forger and writes a lot of propaganda pieces, as well as letters to expat Estonians fishing for unwitting information on people the government is searching for. The stamps are both thematically tied to the story and visually appealing.

I was engaged throughout, waiting to see Edgar get his payback. But the ending was not very satisfactory -- realistic, perhaps, but not narratively satisfying for me. Where is karma when you need it? Sigh. 

But for some great storytelling and a glimpse at a little known site of wartime aggression, this is a winner. It's something that I haven't read about before. 

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