Thank you to Knopf Doubleday for providing me with an egalley copy of the book for review.
I was in Tallinn, Estonia a couple months ago for the first time and fell in love with the country. It’s so rich in culture and history, yet it’s sad to see that much of the world doesn’t pay too much attention to such an intriguing nature. The trip sparked an interest in further learning about their language, culture, and history, so when I saw Sofi Oksanen’s “When the Doves Disappear” I had to request it. My own Slavic background and familiarity with the communist regime served as another factor. Why not read a book about the country while also familiarizing myself with Scandinavian literature?
“When the Doves Disappear” is a book with great promise of intrigue, some scandal, and definitely something dark. We’re introduced to cousins Roland and Edgar and already notice they don’t see eye to eye. Throw in Rosalie and Juudit, the partners of these two cousins, respectively, and it sounds like a recipe for the perfect war-time fiction novel. Sadly I didn’t come to that verdict.
What Oksanen manages to do very well, to the point where it becomes TOO well, is describe the atmosphere and everything that is going on in the character’s mind. You have lengthy sections in the novel of Juudit or Parts wondering about whether what they’re doing is right or not, or learning something about the character through third person narrative. It is only when the story switches to Roland that the narrative becomes first person, so it was easy to keep up with. The content however was what lost me, and what made a skill of description become borderline painful.
The characters that are introduced in the beginning of the book are never fully developed. They come in and out as the narrative switches, in a very choppy fashion, from one to the other. After a certain point I realized the focus is primarily on the idea of interconnection – between Roland and Judit, Parts and Judit, and every other character that appears. However the lack of fleshing out makes the characters fall flat and never go beyond being just a name on the page. Others, like the relatives of Roland and Edgar, I could never remember. Who was the mother-in-law? Who’s the aunt? Or is that not the aunt? By the end of the book I kept forgetting who exactly Parts was, who he was married to, and just what he was doing. Evelin and Rein, who are introduced in the last fifty or so pages of the book, have barely any relevance to the story line until the (rather unsurprising) revelation of just who Evelin is, although this too is done so subtly that it’s easy to overlook. Overall I would say it’s Juudit who’s the only one that the book manages to create some sort of empathy for, though very minimal.
With such a confusing cast of characters it wasn’t too surprising then that the plot felt equally as flat. If one doesn’t know who’s doing the action and why it’s being done then the significance of it is diminished. I must admit I expected something a bit more, something more dramatic and energetic from this book. The events take place with Estonia under Soviet and Nazi occupation, after all. Perhaps it’s my lack of knowledge about the occupied Estonia that makes me believe it’s ‘bigger’ than it really was, and I’ll acknowledge that readily. But even then, everything could’ve been much tighter and clearer. The two story lines blend so much that they’re difficult to distinguish and the characters are a puzzle of their own that takes time to figure out.
It was overall a very slow and somewhat tedious read, far from what I expected. I’d recommend it then to someone who has more patience with figuring out characters and story lines, but also perhaps to one who has some sort of basic knowledge about Estonia during the two time frames that are discussed in the book. For me it was too slow considering how obvious several details were, and the plot was too jumbled and characters too unmemorable to make the reading enjoyable.