Book Review: When the Doves Disappeared

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Thank you to Anansi Press for sending us copies of When the Doves Disappeared. Both Elizabeth and I own Purge (thanks to this fabulous book store Elizabeth has near her at work!) and when Oksanen’s name was in the upcoming titles available, it ensured When the Doves Disappeared was quickly requested.

Tina at Goodreads had this to say about Sofi Oksanen and When the Doves Disappeared (a book she recommends to everyone): “Sofi Oksanen is without a doubt one of the best Finnish contemporary authors, perhaps one of the greatest overall, too. Her prose is beautiful: the language is alive, it is never static or boring but always manages to describe the situation perfectly. It is a pleasure to read her books, every page is like an artwork but without being too complicated to understand. ”

Undeniably, Okansen’s writing (and Rogers translation) is stunning. Words such as poetic, lyrical and beautiful can easily be bandied about, for they are truthful words to use. For example, here are some bits that demonstrate the visual beauty found in Oksanen’s words:

“Juudit was quiet. Her eyelids fluttered, a sound like birds’ wings on the surface of a lake. Circles of tears spread across my eyes.”

“My heart was filled with black thoughts, blacker than nightmares. I was like a tree blown to bits by artillery fire, limbless, wounded and the landscape around me was the same.”

“Edgar stood in the doorway like a harbinger of doom, the wind fluttering his coat like black wings.”

And while I may have lost myself in this lush and beautiful use of the language, I cannot deny how confused I was throughout much of this novel, and the ending unfortunately only further confounded this confusion. The subterfuge was perhaps too thick. While I could understand the situation well enough, I felt the jumps in time from 1941 to 1963 Estonia weren’t linked, well detailed or connected enough to better explain the differences in the time frames.

Estonia was forever under someone else’s regime – first the Soviets, then the Germans and then returned once again to the Soviets. Throughout it all, Roland, one of the three main characters, is determined to fight for an independent Estonia. His cousin Edgar is intent on changing his identity to suit whichever regime is in place at the time. Juudit is Edgar’s wife, a very unhappy wife in an unhappy marriage. The parts where Juudit was telling us her story were my favourite parts. Her descriptions of her unhappy marriage and the relief that Edgar has gone to the front, made Juddit’s sections immensely readable and enjoyable, she had a beautiful voice. During the 40s and when under German occupation, Juudit takes up with a German officer. This (seemed to be? again, it was difficult at times to ascertain what was really happening) was at Roland’s encouragement, as a way to get close to the Germans so Roland could uncover what happened to his beloved, believed to be murdered.

However, none of this was overly clear to me, again I truly felt there was this subterfuge that confused me at every turn. I do not know how to better explain it. I struggled with linking the timelines together, for they weren’t given enough detail to show the connection between them, they simply jumped forward in time 20 years. For instance, in the 60s, Juudit and Edgar are together again as a married couple. Juudit seems to have a real drinking problem and is not all in her right mind. But how this happened, why this happened, or how her and Edgar reunited was not something I could piece together. I could not find the part that describes how this came about or where this occurred in between the two time frames.

While exquisitely written, because of the confusion, it did take me some time to finish. It wasn’t something I felt strongly compelled to reach for, but I was invested enough in the storyline to want to know how it ended. Therefore, While the Doves Disappeared is certainly not a light and quick read and patience is required. I would recommend reading it, if simply to read the wonderful way Oksanen writes. If you are looking for a quick read, I’m sorry, this is not what you should reach for. I am satisfied I stayed with it, once I adjusted my reading to understanding that perhaps Oksanen was slowly unfolding (quite slowly and secretly) this story with intent to keep the reader in the dark for as long as the reveal required. The writing is stunning and it is this writing that forces you to slow down and savour her words. They are extremely lyrical and descriptive. (Bravo as well goes to the English translator Lola M. Rogers.)

As I do have Purge by Oksanen on my shelf, I am anxious to read it, especially knowing this quality of writing can be expected as is in When the Doves Disappeared.

Here is a description for When the Doves Disappeared, for I am certain I’ve left you as much in the dark as to the storyline!

From the internationally acclaimed author of Purge comes a chillingly suspenseful, deftly woven new 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.
1941: In Communist-ruled, war-ravaged Estonia, two men have deserted the Red Army — Roland, a fiercely principled freedom fighter, and his slippery cousin Edgar. When the Germans arrive, Roland goes into hiding; Edgar abandons his unhappy wife, Juudit, and takes on a new identity as a loyal supporter of the Nazi regime . . . 1963: Estonia is again under Communist control, independence even further out of reach behind the Iron Curtain. Edgar is now a Soviet apparatchik, desperate to hide the secrets of his past life and stay close to those in power. But his fate remains entangled with Roland’s, and with Juudit, who may hold the key to uncovering the truth . . .
In a masterfully told story that moves between the tumult of these two brutally repressive eras — a story of surveillance, deception, passion, and betrayal — Sofi Oksanen brings to life both the frailty, and the resilience, of humanity under the shadow of tyranny.

Literary Hoarders Penny rev