Estonia suffered a complex and violent history during the 20th century. After a short period of independence, the republic was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940, by Nazi Germany in 1941, and again by the Soviet Union in 1944. Author Urve Tamberg (the Toronto-raised daughter of Estonian parents) sets her debut novel in the chaotic Estonian summer of 1941 amidst deportations, enforced conscription, and invasion.
Following her father’s arrest, 15-year-old Madli and her brothers are sent to live on the island where they normally spend summer holidays. But this is far from a summer idyll: they are trapped there, and even as Madli falls in love with a local boy named Toomas, she is forced to make almost unbearably difficult moral and practical decisions. Should she help the Nazi invaders drive out the Red Army? Will they be better masters for Estonia and her family? How can she protect those she cares for, even when they are making decisions contrary to her own?
Madli is a fine mix of teenage intelligence, confusion, and hormones. Her first-person narration and brief journal entries guide the reader through both her personal dilemmas and her country’s tragedy. Unfortunately, Madli’s emotions are too often overdone – her heart pounds continually, screams quiver in her throat, and she always seems to be either fighting back tears or weeping uncontrollably. Consequently, by the time the book reaches its climax, the reader is numb to Madli’s histrionics. In addition, the scenes between Madli and Toomas read like a stock romance novel: “long dark lashes gleam” and shirts barely contain broad shoulders.
Despite the overwriting, The Darkest Corner of the World is a worthwhile read for its glimpse into an ignored period of history and its examination of complex moral issues.