An emotionally deficient account of Estonia’s 20th-century occupations: “When the Doves Disappeared” by Sofi Oksanen4 min read
At first glance, Sofi Oksanen’s fourth novel When the Doves Disappeared — originally published in Finnish as Kun kyyhkyset katosivat in 2012 — should be a thrilling tale of betrayal and a deep, emotional examination of a time when families were torn between different loyalties and the will to survive. Yet the novel lacks the emotional component crucial for its readers to have any hope of identifying with any of the characters and truly understanding their motivations.
Set between 1941-44 and 1963-66, When the Doves Disappeared focuses on the diverging lives of two Estonian cousins, both of whom fled from the Red Army. Roland is a loyal freedom fighter, caring only to bring his fiance’s murderer to justice and to save the Estonian state from occupation; Edgar is a slippery sycophant, transforming himself into the most loyal supporter of whichever regime is in favour. Caught between the two is Juudit, Edgar’s abandoned wife who finds a second and third chance at love, first with a Nazi officer, and then with Roland himself.
Sofi Oksanen grew up in Finland with Finnish-Estonian heritage: her mother was Estonian and lived during the Soviet occupation before emigrating to Finland in the 1970s. The majority of Oksanen’s work is based on this period of occupation in Estonia’s history, exploring the motivations behind collusion and resistance, especially in regards to Estonian women. For example, her most famous novel, Purge, focuses on two generations of Estonian women and their experiences of sexual violence, ranging from rape and torture encountered in World War II to modern day sexual exploitation by the Russian mafia. Similarly, though When the Doves Disappeared ostensibly focuses on two male cousins, it is Juudit who is the most developed, as well as the most tragic, character. She is the one to tie all the storylines, past and present, together, culminating in the novel’s horrifically bleak ending.
In her historical details, Oksanen excels. The persecution of Jews is shown as well as a depiction of the Klooga concentration camp, where an estimated 1,800–2,000 (mainly Jewish) prisoners were murdered. Roland, in his quest to protect his nation, first aids Estonians in fleeing the Nazi occupation via a network of safe houses and, with the subsequent Soviet occupation, joins the Forest Brothers, becoming an archivist of sorts as well as a fighter. Edgar spends much of his later life grounded in the knowledge that the ever-famous pervasive Soviet surveillance is less spy-fare than simple, monotonous routine. While all of this does make for an interesting historical novel, one with merit to anyone interested in learning more about the World War II period and the subsequent Soviet occupation of Estonia, it is not as gripping for a reader interested primarily in the characters so dramatically detailed in the novel’s summary.
Crucially, even with what should be such morally intriguing characters, When the Doves Disappeared fails to emotionally capture the reader. There are four narrators throughout the novel, only one of whom, Roland, is written in first-person. Due to the changing timelines and narrations, each chapter is brief, often a few pages at most. This leads to the necessity of creating a fast-paced tale to cover the time periods and action, yet leaves little hope of creating any characters with true depth. There is little character development — from the beginning it is clear who is the hero and who is the villain. Only Juudit is shown in a morally grey light, as someone stuck in tragic circumstances with little chance for escape. Even her choices seem strange at times, her relationships unconvincing. For a novel that seems purpose-built to explore the human psyche, it fails to delve any deeper than surface-level into each character’s motivations.
Oksanen is not afraid to look at the heart of such a traumatic period of Estonian history. Like many of her novels, When the Doves Disappeared is bleak, full of death and emotional pain for all involved. Yet, though historically of interest, and important for readers less versed in how Estonians perceive their experiences in the 20th-century, it is lacking that emotional spark which would have made this novel great.
Book details: When the Doves Disappeared, by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola M. Rogers, 2015, Atlantic Books. Buy it here.