What happens to people’s sense of national identity when their country is occupied during war? Estonia has a particularly complex history having been a part of surrounding nations or occupied by its warring neighbours for centuries. In the aftermath of WWI, the country fought a battle of independence for two years and finally achieved sovereignty. But with the onset of WWII the country was again seized to be used as a pawn - first by the Soviets and then occupied by the Germans in 1941. This is where the novel “When the Doves Disappeared” begins. The characters are suspended in a state of agonizing tension as no one knows what the outcome of the war will be or where their loyalties should lay. It primarily follows the stories of Roland, his cousin Edgar and Edgar’s wife Juudit. Each character makes different choices and transforms themselves to survive the subsequent crucial few years. During this time the Estonians discover that the German “liberators” are another occupier intent on using their resources and instigating their pogroms upon their Jewish and gypsy populations as well as others. The novel flips back and forth between these years and the 60s when the Soviets have re-occupied the country establishing networks of informants who watch the population and report to the government any dissenters. This complex powerful novel shows the degrees to which people radically transform their identities and how close relationships are destroyed under pressure from the overwhelming onslaught of war.

The novel begins at the grave of Roland’s wife Rosalie. She was mysteriously killed and Roland is determined to discover what happened. Only at the novel’s end do we find out why she was silenced. In the meantime, Roland fights with the resistance while Edgar’s loyalties change with the times. He renames himself while desperately trying to endear himself with the Germans and report to them about the political loyalty or dissent of members of the Estonian public. When the Soviets take the country over again he gives himself yet another name and continues his spying as well as writing outlandish propaganda against enemies of communism. His estranged wife Juudit in a way comes to represent Estonia itself. Rejected by her husband for reasons she never understands, she is at first recruited by the Estonian resistance but becomes a German officer’s lover. When circumstances tear them apart she’s left as a husk living out her days back with her husband Edgar who neglects her and treats her as an invalid. These characters’ intricate tales are played out over a number of years in a way which shows how people’s integrity can be worn down over time while living under oppressive governments.

Museum of the Occupation in Tallinn

Museum of the Occupation in Tallinn

It can be confusing and disorientating at first trying to follow characters and the narrative as this novel switches through time and place – especially as some people’s names change over time! However, about halfway through it all fell into place for me and I felt the building suspense of Sofi Oksanen’s heartrending labyrinthine tale. This novel makes you feel the persistent tension people feel when living in perpetual state of fear. There is also the horrific silence which builds when people die or disappear as people are worn down and don’t speak because “Maybe life was so fragile and meaningless that there was no need to add to their troubles.” Beyond physical damage and death, Oksanen captures the way in which people are defeated in their minds. For those who try to be savvy in order to survive by transforming themselves, she shows how they lose an essential part of their being. This is demonstrated particularly in a homosexual character who denies his sexuality and loses himself entirely in his attempts to assimilate to changing ideologies.

One of the most impressive things about “When the Doves Disappeared” is the complex way Oksanen represents time. She observes at one point that “Everyone had his breaking point, and if nothing else destroyed the mind, time would.” Following the entangled stories of the characters in this novel you learn the way war can ultimately tear people’s sense of themselves apart. This is a cleverly constructed novel filled with many poignant and haunting moments. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSofi Oksanen