When the Doves Disappeared is the second novel by Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen to be translated into English. Already a bestseller in Sweden and Finland, the novel was first published in 2012, and has recently been released by Atlantic Books. Publication in twenty-eight further countries worldwide will follow. Le Monde heralds When the Doves Disappeared ‘an explosive book with a dark heart’. The book’s blurb, which calls it ‘a story of surveillance, deception, passion, and betrayal’ also alludes to the way in which Oksanen ‘brings to life both the frailty, and the resilience, of humanity under the shadow of tyranny’.
This is ‘a chillingly suspenseful, deftly woven novel that opens up a little-known yet still controversial chapter of history: the occupation, resistance, and collaboration in Estonia during and after World War II’. Two stories, both of which highlight ‘two brutally repressive eras’ and which largely feature the same protagonists, unfold. The first takes place in 1941, when Roland and his ‘slippery cousin’ Edgar are fleeing the clutches of the Red Army, both having to make sacrifices to stay hidden; and the second in 1963, when Estonia’s Communist control has once again strengthened its hold. In this later story, Oksanen still follows Roland and Edgar, as well as Edgar’s wife, Juudit, who ‘may hold the key to uncovering the truth’.
The prologue gives immediate depth: ‘But I had to bring her [Juudit] to the safety of the forest when I heard that she’d had to flee from Tallinn… She’d been like an injured bird in the palm of my hand, weakened, her nerves feverish for weeks… The men were right… Women and children belonged at home… The noose around us was tightening and the safety of the forest was melting away’. At this time, we are told that ‘the acts of the Bolsheviks had already proved our country and our homes were under the control of barbarians’.
As well as using two differing timespans, Oksanen also blends two different narrative voices – the first person perspective of Roland, who is a soldier at the outset of the book, and the omniscient third person, which largely follows Juudit. The latter is fitting, but Oksanen’s use of the male narrative voice does not feel quite realistic; some of the turns of phrase which she makes use of do not quite sit correctly within the whole, and are not at all what one can imagine a man in Roland’s position to say. I for one cannot personally think of many men who would utter such sentences as, ‘She jumped like a nimble bird’, or ‘Her eyelids fluttered, a sound like birds’ wings on the surface of a lake’.
It seems as though Lola Rogers’ translation of the novel has been thoughtfully done on the whole, but there are a few issues within the text. From time to time, the idioms which have been used are somewhat lost in translation. The use of Americanisms also grated somewhat; words such as ‘frosting’, ‘cookie’ and ‘gotten’ feel too modern for the piece, and serve to jar one from the well-crafted period context. Whilst this is only a minor issue, it does divert attention from what should be a riveting story.
When the Doves Disappeared is well paced, and one of Oksanen’s strengths certainly lies in the way in which she builds tension. Some of her sentences in the more climactic moments are striking: ‘Spies’ eyes glittered everywhere, greedy for the gold of dead Estonians’ dust’. The scenes, too, are well built, and Oksanen’s backdrops, particularly with regard to the war-torn towns and battlefields, have been rather vividly evoked. Roland speaks of how ‘I’d made a record of every smoking ruin and unburied body I’d encountered, with either a house or a cross, even if I couldn’t find words for all those lifeless eyes, these corpses swarming with maggots’. The levels of historical context here lead one to the conclusion that the whole has been thoroughly researched, and details which she weaves in, such as Estonia’s Army uniforms and the lack of available food, further set the scene.
The World War Two story is more engaging than that which occurs in 1961, too; whilst there are items of historical interest within the latter, it does not quite make for the gripping tale which I was expecting. In terms of learning about the war and its aftermath within Estonia, When the Doves Disappeared is fascinating. In comparison to Purge, however, it feels both lacking and a touch disappointing.