The title of this bestseller from Sofi Oksanen alludes to the mass deportation to Stalin's gulags of those Estonians deemed to have collaborated during the 1941-44 German occupation. The purge is pivotal for the family at the centre of her story, but Oksanen also moves beyond the bitter dilemmas of collusion and resistance to deal with the more private horror of sexual violence during both peace and war.
The story spans 60 years, opening in 1992 after Estonia has regained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Aliide Truu, an elderly widow, lives by canning fruit on the outskirts of a forest in western Estonia. She pursues a land restitution case and is tormented by stone-throwers who revile her communist history. Her daughter has moved to Helsinki because "Estonia was full of people who kept saying that they should have left for Finland or Sweden during the war", a regret "passed on to the next generation with their lullabies". The buried past resurfaces when Aliide takes in Zara, a bruised and dishevelled "dishrag of a girl" from Vladivostok who has turned up in her yard.
As the two women circle one another, each suspicious by reflex, the novel moves back and forth in time. We learn that Zara, granddaughter of an Estonian woman exiled to Siberia during the purge, is on the run from Russian pimps after being trafficked via Berlin as a sex worker. Her gangster pursuers are closing in but, for the widow, "they might as well all come – Mafia thugs, soldiers – Reds and Whites – Russians, Germans, Estonians . . . Aliide would survive. She always had."