When I started this novel, I thought I was really going to enjoy it. I love Helen Dunmore's writing, and in this book, it is as fluid and effortless as ever. But the story seems to lose direction, and when the heroine, Eeva, moves from the country to Helsinki, the plot becomes looser, more muddled and less satisfying. I missed the kind doctor of the first part and the delicate portrayal of his relationship with Eeva, and the political activities of Eeva's new friends in Helsinki failed to grab my attention. Like at least one other reviewer, I was surprised and puzzled when the novel suddenly ended, with so many questions unanswered. This book was altogether a disappointment; definitely not one of her best.
on 28 April 2007
I enjoyed Dunmore's description of life in rural Finland at the turn of the century. There was an attention to detail which was fascinating and her portrayal of the characters at the orphanage and the doctor and his family was sympathetic and well-researched. The poverty of the farming communitites is a stark contrast to the comforts of the Swedish speaking bourgeoisie in the early 1900s. With the doctor's help Eeva moves back to Helsinki, and her life amidst the political turmoil of the new city is again an interesting contrast to her childhood years in the security and the purity of the countryside.
Although I enjoyed the beginning of the book I felt we lost Eeva after she moved back to Helsinki. The narrative switched without transition from one character to another without developing to any climax. I was surprised when I reached the end of the book, and was frustrated that some of the characters had slid out of the novel without me noticing.
on 28 January 2013
Towards the end of the book there is this rather telling sentence that could also apply to our modern world:
"The way things are these days you can get arrested only for looking too cheerful when they think you ought to be looking sad."
And that's really what I felt after finishing the book, an overwhelming sense of sadness. The story portrays Finland in the earliest part of the 20th century and the protests that happened over "Russification" while the Tsar still held power. It is not a page-turner, but a reliable plodder. Nevertheless, I really question the wisdom of some of the characters depicted and why they seemed to have a death wish, as if there was no alternative. Probably the only person who could finally look back on a successful, fulfilled life was the old doctor, out in the back of beyond, while the hotheads and the easily led spent their lives in the big city and subjected themselves to all kinds of propaganda and threat. I would suggest you only read this book if you're not already feeling sad, otherwise the emotional burden may be too much to bear. Put it this way, I'm glad I live in Lincolnshire in 2013 and not in Finland in 1903!
on 10 May 2007
Dunmore once returns to a historical novel, as she did in The Siege, which remains one of my favourites by her, along with A Spell in Winter. All her books, whether contemporary or historical, take their plot from the characters.
This book is set in Finland in turbulent (and fascinating) political times, but wears its research lightly.
It is the story of Eeva, daughter of a political activist, who is sent to an orphanage and from there into service, working for a country doctor.
This is a wonderful book, deft and elegant, without being difficult or condescending.
on 3 March 2007
This is one of those incredibly satisying novels that takes you into an unfamiliar world and then propels you along through terrific characters and a satisfying plot. I never knew I'd be interested in Finland in the 1900s, but I was gripped, and taken into two contrasting worlds of Helsinki the new modern city and the backwoods of the Finnish countryside. It's a love story -- a triangular one -- and it's also about revolution and terrorism and full of suspense.
The characters are by turns noble, touching and sinister -- and sometimes all three.
on 7 July 2011
The story is set in Finland in the early twentieth century. Russian rule has for some time fomented an, as yet, ineffectual revolutionary terrorism and the necessary organ of state, the Okhrana secret police, operates to squash any such activity.
Eeva was a young girl in Helsinki when her father was arrested by the Okhrana, and along with her childhood sweetheart Lauri she was too young to put up any resistance, something which comes back to haunt her in later life. Her father having been removed by the state, it is not made clear why Eeva's mother is not around, she effectively became an orphan and was removed to an orphanage in the country to be prepared for a life in service when old enough.
Our story begins when Eeva, now in her teens, is given the chance of a position in service with Dr Thomas Eklund, a widow who lives alone in a large house and who includes the orphanage and everyone in it on his list of patients. Eklund has one close friend who lives locally, the unhappily married Lotta, and a married daughter, Minna, with whom he has little contact and who lives some distance away.
Life is very simple in this traditional setting so the arrival of a young girl under his roof creates some ripples on the surface of this quiet backwater. Slowly Eklund becomes besotted by Eeva, denying his emotions in the process, whilst Lotta becomes obsessed by the threat Eeva poses to her relationship with Eklund, her one true friend. Lotta decides that something must be done to prevent the unfortunate doctor making a fool of himself. Eeva however manages to pre-empt any such action when she re-establishes contact with her childhood friend Lauri and takes herself off to Helsinki. Lotta is relieved and the Doctor rues his loss. End of Act One.
Act Two revolves around the small circle of Lauri's friends that Eeva joins in Helsinki. There is erstwhile terrorist-in-waiting and Lauri's room-mate Sasha and Magda, an acquaintance of Sasha's, who takes Eeva under her wing, finds her a job and puts her up.So we have a quartet to play out the final scenes, to the backdrop of bubbling insurrection and state oppression.
Far from mimicking the "not much happens around here" situation, and not much does given the rural torpidity that surrounds Eklund and the fact that the insurrection in Helsinki never actually takes place, Dunmore nonetheless creates a relentless pace and sense of foreboding. There is an edge of tension throughout in all the relationships and only occasionally does someone go over that edge. Seemingly Dunmore has captured the essence of the Finnish character, a silent, cerebral reluctance to simply come out with it and express one's feelings, about some thing or some person, and it is there on the page, written in the unspoken thoughts of the characters themselves as they run over in their minds, again and again, what it would be unwise to actually voice. I wanted to pick Thomas Eklund up by his lapels on more than one occasion and tell him to say what was on his mind. By exposing the stress in the minds of her characters Dunmore skilfully builds up the stress in ours.
The story does not have a particularly strong relationship with its title, other than Eeva being released from the orphanage, and we do learn something of the tough, unsympathetic regime in place there, but other than that we don't return and its influence on the story quickly pales. The ending to Act Two might be considered strange, it has an unfinished (no pun intended) quality, but then nothing about this tale is finished. Does Eklund simply return to his rural practice and carry on as if nothing had happened, his friendship with Lotta unchanged? Do Lauri and Eeva live happily ever after? The fact is it doesn't matter, we have dipped into the important tranche of all their lives and then dipped out again. Dunmore has been our guide and left us with a lot to ponder. I raced to the end; it is a very good book.
on 6 January 2013
To me this book is as much about what forced people in countries across Europe to make new beginnings out of their various feudal pasts, as it is about a particular time and place (Finland in the very early 1900s).
Some of the customer reviews of House of Orphans complain about the switch in style as the book moves from the countryside to the city. I guess maybe what Helen Dunmore was attempting here was to show how the move from rural to urban living took place concurrently with a change in storytelling style: from whatever went before (lyrical realism?) to modernism. I imagine she was trying to reflect that in the way she wrote this. Hence the detailed and sustained narrative style in the early section that deals with Eevi and the Doctor in the countryside, and the more jumpy, at times discordant, style of narration once Eevi moves out of the doctor's house and begins to make a new life the city.
I slightly agree that not enough happens here, towards the end, that the novel somehow feels unfinished. It feels as though we're moving towards a crash point but the author bottles it and whatever crash is coming (revolution, assassination, emigration) happens off the page. But this could be intentional. Either way I still found this book well worth reading.