This is one of those instances when, rather than reading the novel by an author sitting unread on my shelf since I can’t remember when, I plumped for their bright, shiny and new book, although bright might not be the best way to describe Sofi Oksanen’s Dog Park. Opening in Helsinki in 2016, Oksanen’s novel takes us back to Ukraine shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, exploring the dark underbelly of this newly independent country through the booming fertility business.
There I could watch the family lead their life like a story that could have been mine if everything had gone differently
Olenka is sitting on a bench watching an affluent family as they play with their dog in a Helsinki park. She regularly watches them, aware that she may need to adopt a pretext for her frequent appearances. When she’s joined by another woman, equally intent on the Finnish family, she finds to her horror that her past has finally caught up with her. Olenka and Daria have known each other for many years. Olenka had recruited Daria as a donor for a fertility agency catering to rich clients, exacting in their demands for impeccable candidates, willing to pay for the eggs of beautiful women in the peak of health and able to demonstrate their intellectual abilities. The agency had been Olenka’s second attempt to rescue her family from poverty after her modelling career collapsed. She was good at it, understanding her clients and how to manipulate them, entrusted to take care of one of Ukraine’s most powerful families. Daria was the donor she chose. A delicate situation for which Olenka martialed all her skills but failed to take account of her own history and the golden future she’d planned slipped from her grasp. When Daria reappears years later, Olenka resorts to desperate measures.
I knew what she meant. Around here, the honest people are in prison, and the liars are in Parliament
Oksanen’s intricately plotted novel is both a thriller and an exploration of the poverty, exploitation and lawlessness that ensues after the sudden collapse of a highly structured society. Switching between Helsinki and Ukraine, Olenka’s narrative is addressed to her ex-lover with whom she’d hoped to cement a prosperous and happy future. Oksanen graphically illustrates the gulf between rich and poor as, faced with their families’ financial dependence, both Olenka and Daria use their beauty and fertility to make money. Rich Westerners engage in fertility shopping scrutinising the family photographs and medical reports of proposed egg donors, rejecting those who fall short. Meanwhile, gangsters prosper in apparent respectablity. Oksanen drip-feeds details of Olenka’s story into her narrative, ratcheting up the tension with the occasional cliff hanger but it was the political backdrop which fascinated me. A very dark novel, and a gripping one
Atlantic Books: London 9781838951429 368 pages Trade paperback