I had to take a break as I was reading Sofi Oksanen’s When the Doves Disappeared to read up on Estonia during World War II. It’s the first book I’ve read that’s set in the Baltic, let alone in the Baltic during the war. I didn’t know, for example, that Estonia had been an independent country before the Soviet Union took advantage of the non-aggression pact to invade in 1940. When the Germans invaded in 1941, many Estonians—including several of the characters in When the Doves Disappeared—welcomed them as a means to regain their independence. Oksanen’s novel revolves around Edgar Parts as he morphs from NKVD agent to German agent and back.
When the Doves Disappeared doesn’t begin with Edgar. It begins with his cousin, Roland, and Edgar’s wife, Juudit. Roland and Edgar returned from Finland to fight the Russians just before the German invasion. By the time we meet them, they’re both looking for a way out. Both want out of the fighting, but for different reasons. Roland decides to side with the Estonians. Edgar jumps aboard the German bandwagon, seeing it as his way to the top. Meanwhile. Juudit is stuck in Tallinn, wondering what she should do. She’s alone in the city. Her husband hasn’t come back, nor has he sent word that he’s even alive and in the country.
As Edgar, Roland, and Juudit find their own paths forward, the narrative jumps ahead to the earlier 1960s. Edgar Parts, now a local agent in Tallinn for the KGB, has been tasked with writing a book about “Hitlerism” in Estonia and war crimes. If the book passes the censors, Edgar could become a famous author. All he has to do is make sure no one finds out that he was a collaborator during the war. As Edgar does his research, he takes care to track down anyone who knew him then who might still be alive and cover up any traces of his own lies.
When the Doves Disappeared moves back and forth from the 1940s to the 1960s. Slowly, we learn more about how Edgar survived the war. We learn that Roland spent part of the war smuggling Estonians, including Jews, out of the country, and working with the anti-German resistance. We also learn that Juudit, under orders from Roland, ended up seducing the wrong Wehrmacht officer and fell deeply in love with someone who was supposed to be the enemy. This half of the book was fascinating. It opened up a whole new theater of the war for me.
The first half of When the Doves Disappeared is a thrilling war story. Every character seems to be on the edge of disaster. The second half is much darker as the focus shifts from Roland and Juudit to Edgar. The second half is very much a Cold War story, as Edgar tries to outthink his Soviet masters at every turn.
This shift in focus is the big flaw in When the Doves Disappeared. Though characters stay the same, the two halves feel disconnected from each other by the changes in tone and plot. The disconnect makes the book feel incomplete, as if two really good ideas had been jammed together to make up one whole novel. If Oksanen had developed one half or the other, this book could have been really interesting.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 February 2015.