CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 3 . . . . September 21, 2012
With a focus on the Baltic nation of Estonia, Urve Tamberg's debut novel, The Darkest Corner of the World, offers intimate insight into what is generally an overlooked and unrepresented subject in the annals of World War II history: the plight of Eastern Europe under Soviet occupation. The story follows 15 year old Madli and her struggle to keep her family together while away on vacation during the summer of 1941. Normally, visits to her grandparents' farm are restful and enjoyable occasions with ample time spent eating, participating in summer festivities, and catching up with old friends, but Madli is in a constant state of fear, preoccupied with worry over the growing sternness exhibited by Soviet troops and military police. In order to protect herself and most importantly her friends and family, Madli plays the part of a pro Soviet Estonian. Things are, however, complicated when Hitler launches his invasion of the Soviet Union. Madli must reassess her priorities and allegiances amidst an ever changing landscape of friends and enemies. She quickly discovers that even the most sacred of bonds, those of family and country, can be broken.
While the reveal of who the traitor is within her family does not come particularly as a great surprise, it does mark a seminal point in the book as it forces Madli to, once and for all, choose a side within the conflict. Much of the dialogue carried forward preceding this event revolves around the merits of lending support to one of three primary combatants: the Soviets, the Nazis, or the Forest Brothers, the latter group being an Estonian partisan organization of resistance fighters. These conversations are intelligently constructed, serving well to both introduce the ideologies of the time as well as realistically capture the everyday discussions average Estonians were likely debating and struggling to come to terms with during the war.
Opening chapters are also effectively used, much to the benefit of establishing tone, to introduce readers to the privations of life under Soviet rule. The typical modus operandi of dictatorships, including unwarranted street searches and seizures, arrests and deportations, are depicted. Madli's father, a well respected and accomplished professor of history, was an early victim of the Soviet occupation. Despite not having seen or heard from her father since his arrest, Madli is confident that he will be returned to her unharmed. Until then, she keeps a vigilant watch over her father's manuscripts, documents that report on the early terror of Soviet occupation and provide proof that the signing of the Nazi Soviet Non Aggression Pact contained an undisclosed clause which divided Eastern Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence. Like her father, Madli, through the diary she keeps, is maintaining an account of the injustices she has witnessed in order that she can one day reveal the truth to the world. Written (naturally) in the first person, these entries stand in contrast to the third person narrative that dominates the book. While generally providing great (but brief) insight into Madli's intimate thoughts, feelings, and concerns (reminiscent of Anne Frank's diary), most of the accounts are redundant, needlessly reciting events already described paragraphs earlier.
In the tradition of well-written historical fiction, Tamberg has managed to strike a healthy balance between fact and fiction throughout; the incorporation of the former is used appropriately not so much as a device to develop or drive the plot forward, but more so as a means to provide richness and authenticity to the time and proper context to events discussed. And while the evidence of research is clear, it does not manifest itself directly in the form of dates, places, and historical people per se. Wisely, a great deal of effort is invested in building up Estonian culture, customs, and traditions, much of which is lovingly dispensed through the advice and folklore of Madli's grandparents. In a similar manner, Tamberg's development of physical setting, that of the Estonian countryside and wilderness, works wonderfully to breathe life into the story. The rugged landscape and environment of Hiiumaa Island (the location of Madli's summer retreat) captures perfectly the resiliency of the Estonian people during the war and, by extension, that which is inherent in all humanity when confronted with crisis. Tamberg is able to impart this beautiful message throughout the story right up to the very last words.
A worthy addition to the historical fiction collection of any library, The Darkest Corner of the World may also be an appropriate selection for use in the classroom, ideally as a supplement to more traditional materials and teachings of World War II history. Appeal, however, will perhaps be greatest among female audiences due to the centrality of Madli's character and the prominence of romantic love which Tamberg has skilfully woven throughout the story. Also, as the book maintains certain similarities with dystopian literature – for example, life under Soviet occupation during the 1940s is not so much unlike the repressed societies that are the mainstay of the dystopian genre – it is conceivable that The Darkest Corner of the World would suit the interests and sensibilities of readers looking for greater reading variety across the genres. However, any recommendation of this kind should perhaps be prefaced by stating that, at its core, The Darkest Corner of the World is a World War II historical fiction novel: a pretty good one at that.
Andrew Laudicina is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Western Ontario in London; he currently resides in Windsor, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.