Purge, by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen is one of the hardest novels I've read in a long time.
Spanning 60 years of history from World War II through the break up of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s, it is a tale of deception, brutality and home-grown hate. The Nazis and the Soviets come in for their share of blame, but the post-USSR world is still pretty bleak. One of the two main characters is a young woman who has been ensnared in the underground of brutal prostitution as the story opens, the other is a woman old enough to be her mother who is bitter and mean, through and through.
I couldn't help think of the book when I saw the story in The New York Times this week about the radical feminist movement Femen, which had its origins, apparently, in the Ukraine. These group whose members protest topless, "now has chapters in nine countries, on four continents...calls its tactics “sextremism” and its hundreds of mostly volunteer members “shock troops” — frontline soldiers in a global war against patriarchy, and for women’s rights. Its sworn enemies are dictatorship, organized religion and sexual exploitation."
The story focuses on one very pretty young woman Sasha Shevensko (shown in the picture with her mother) who explains her involvement: “I decided for myself to be a woman, to be a girl who will open eyes for other women, for other girls,” she said. “Because I know myself — Ukrainian girls are stupid. We don’t have sexual education in schools. In universities, we don’t have feminist education. We don’t know even what feminism is.”
With more of that attitude around the girl in Purge might not have ended up being brutalized. Nor would the villainess in Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian be so keen on getting out and to the UK where she entraps an elderly Ukrainian widower to the dismay of his fully-assimilated daughters.
Lewycka has taken a tack completely opposite of Oksanen's. Her novel is extremely funny, and, while there is ugliness under the surface, the reader only glimpses it. I have no idea if Lewycka has had any contact with Femen--she's more than a generation older--but I'm sure she would appreciate the way they use convention and shock to get their message across.
So take your pick: one novel that will shock you or another that will make you laugh. Both are worth reading.
For more thoughts on books and the writing life, check out Not So Solitary a Pleasure: A Blog about Books http://notsosolitaryapleasure.blogspot.ca
What did you think of this review?