Olenka, a Ukrainian woman working as a maid in Finland, has formed a habit of visiting a dog park in Helsinki in the evenings for a while now. Each time, she sits on the same bench and keeps watching one family in particular – a well to do Finish couple with a young boy and a girl – as they play with their dog. On one such evening in 2016, Olenka is joined by a stranger – a woman with an unkempt appearance, who can easily be mistaken for a vagrant. But as Olenka would soon realize, she is no stranger. This woman, Daria, is someone from Olenka’s past – someone whom Olenka thought she had successfully outrun when she left Ukraine in a hurry. As the story unravels, not only do we see how their paths crossed in Ukraine and the lies and manipulations that brought them here, but also how they are both connected to the Finish family that they keep observing.
In Dog Park, which is set after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, we get an unflinching account of how Ukraine’s post-communist transition affected ordinary families. After independence, Olenka’s family had moved back home from Estonia, with high hopes for a better future. But as they would come to realize, this had been wishful thinking. Ukraine’s transformation did not bring the economic, political, and social prosperity its citizens expected, at least initially. The dominance of oligarchs in the economy had meant poverty for most until they learnt how to play the game in a corrupt system. Most families, including Olenka’s, were reduced to working in illegal mines and growing poppies until they got into the booming business of commodifying the female body. In the beginning, most women engaged in modelling and mail order bride businesses. But advancements in fertility treatments opened up new avenues, with women signing up as surrogates and egg donors for a fraction of the price compared to other countries in the West. Before long, Olenka too had joined the fertility market racket. It had brought Olenka all the comforts of a glamorous life before an unwitting mistake flung her back into an impoverished existence.
In Dog Park, Sofi Oksanen excels in capturing the exploitation of fertility markets where both clients and female donors get ruthlessly manipulated as they try to build their lives. Some unsettling moments peppered throughout the novel dive into the physical and psychological ramifications experienced by the donors. I could understand how difficult it might be for the donors to reconcile with their decision, particularly if they were led to it out of financial desperation in the first place and also if they find themselves unable to conceive later in life. However, I wasn’t sure of the alleged health risks, other than the obvious such as infertility and death due to botched egg retrievals. Dog Park made me read up on egg donations, which made me realize the answer to the potential health risks is complicated as studies have never been done on the long-term effects to the donor! To me, it is concerning as the fertility industry continues to tout the procedure as completely safe. In that regard, Dog Park is bound to become a conversation starter.
Note: Many thanks to Knopf for sending me a review copy of Dog Park.