Sunday, August 14, 2022

Dog Park by Oksanen

Dog Park / Sofi Oksanen
trans. from the Finnish by Owen F Witesman
TO: Anansi International, 2021, c2019
352 p.

This is a dark and twisty tale of international surrogacy and egg donor agencies; it's a call back to Oksanen's earlier novel Norma which I read a few years ago, and the presence in that novel of baby farms and Ukrainian women being used for both their hair and their reproductive abilities. However, unlike Norma, this novel doesn't have any magical quirkiness to it. Rather, it's very grounded in the depressing, desperate lives of young women in Eastern Ukraine, specifically the Donbas region. 

Our main character Olenka meets someone she knows in a dog park in Helsinki. She's startled because she thought she'd escaped her previous life in Eastern Ukraine but here is someone who could bring it all down. Daria was a former protégé of Olenka's at the agency she worked at, before it all came crashing to a halt. 

The story then goes backward into Olenka's story; her childhood in Tallinn and her family's move to her father's hometown of Snizhne in the Donbas when she was a young teen. They move in with his mother in this depressed area; her father has grand plans of profiting from the Wild West atmosphere which followed the breakdown of the Soviet Union. He has a local partner (who happens to be Daria's father) and together they are going to take over some of the mines in the area and become rich. Of course this doesn't happen, with tragedy coming instead. 

Olenka then tries to go West and become a model so that she can send money home but that also falters. When she has to return to Snizhne she is desperate for work, and that's when her life as a successful coordinator at a donor clinic begins. Everything seems to be going well; she is good at her job, finds girls who are willing to become egg donors, knows how to scrub their backgrounds to give a shining bio to each, has new ideas for expansion and is eager to progress. But after a couple of her ideas don't turn out too well, she has to come up with something better, and then the opportunity to provide a donor to one of the richest, most well-connected gangster families in the area pops up. This brings her a chance for glory, as well as a very unexpected romance. But all the time, her past is waiting to explode into this shining future. 

How and why does she end up fleeing to Finland? And why is Daria there too? The book is twisty and keeps us guessing, although the reader starts to see the outlines before they are all revealed. I found the parts when Olenka was active more interesting than the parts in Helsinki where she's reflecting back and trying to confess the facts to a distant "you" (her lost lover) -- it slowed down the pace of the story a bit, even though the reason she's so focused on "you" makes sense in the end. I thought that this book approached an unusual subject and was unflinching in exposing the kind of poverty, instability and lack of opportunity that dogged women's lives both under the USSR and in the first years of capitalism. Things don't change in an instant; these women's lives were still difficult and limited, and the novel shows how that was easily manipulated by those with the desire for money and power. It is a dark read but also one that caught me. 

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