When the Doves Disappeared (Kun kyyhkeset katosivat, 2012; tr. from the Finnish by Lola Rogers, 2015) is a smart-paced, suspenseful novel that explores the life defining consequences of choosing loyalty over betrayal, authenticity over self-preservation.
Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen opens her novel in 1941 Estonia during the extraordinary political turmoil created by the battle between the Nazis and the Soviets for possession of that country. Young farmer Roland Simson and his cousin Edgar have joined Estonian independence fighters in armed skirmishes against the Red Army. Their success in forcing the Soviets into retreat only facilitates the swift encampment of the Nazis as the new occupying power.
Throughout the Nazi occupation Roland remains loyal to the nationalist cause. He goes into hiding, collaborating with pro-independence groups and arranging secret evacuations of Estonian and Jewish families. Edgar, on the other hand, uses the German occupation to his advantage and positions himself as a valuable informant for the Nazis. Juudit, Edgar’s estranged wife, becomes the live-in mistress of a high-ranking Nazi official stationed in Tallinn.
The novel moves back and forth in time between World War II and the 1960s when Edgar and Juudit are once again living together, albeit still estranged. In this new era Edgar has taken on a different name and a different past. Hoping to elevate his standing with Moscow, Edgar is writing a fabricated history of Estonian fascists’ atrocities against Russian nationals. The question of whether Roland survived the war and will resurface to expose Edgar’s and Juudit’s collaboration with the Nazis is one of the novel’s key mysteries.
As in her previous novel, Purge, Oksanen deftly combines the historical fiction and mystery genres, employing a writing style that is entertaining and thoughtful. Much of the novel is told from Edgar’s perspective, and his motivations and calculating nature are fully fleshed-out. Not so with Roland. I wanted a closer look at his thoughts and emotions, not because Roland, the “better” character, is more likeable but because his and Edgar’s divergent paths — rebel versus collaborator — and the consequences of each man’s choice, is a central premise of the novel. Unfortunately, we get only teasing glimpses of the light and shadow of Roland’s mind:
I grabbed Juudit by the shoulder and shook her. The smell of her Baltic baron, his heat, his sickening stench, came out of her gapping mouth, and I had to put one hand over my nose . . . . Juudit was limp, not even trying to get loose. We fell onto the landing. Her light body was on top of me, my hand still clutching her arm. Her open mouth closed over mine, her breasts pouring out of her blouse. It was so silent that I could hear the change in her odor, salty as sea stones, her tongue like a slippery tail swimming into my mouth. My body betrayed me, my hand let go of her arm and moved to her hips, and then the thing happened that shouldn’t have happened.
Roland’s simultaneous physical attraction and moral revulsion toward Juudit never gets the full focus that it should. Additionally the mysterious death of Roland’s fiancée lingers over much of the novel, but Roland’s grief and how the death impacts his emotional and psychological life deserves more attention.
Notwithstanding some shortcomings When the Doves Disappeared is a page-turner, maintaining suspenseful tension throughout. And for the most part the writing is very good. With commendable novels like Purge and When the Doves Disappeared in her repertoire, it is natural to expect great fiction from the young Ms. Oksanen in the future. And to eagerly anticipate it!