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Love and politics in early 20th century Finland,
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This review is from: House of Orphans (Paperback)
The book is set in Finland in the first few years of the 20th century, when Finnish nationalist and left-wing groups in Helsinki were planning resistance to oppressive Russian rule. As a child Eeva knew that her father was part of such a circle. When he died, Eeva briefly lived with the family of her father's comrade, who had a son, Lauri, of her own age; the children were close childhood friends. But when Lauri's father was arrested by the Okhrana, Eeva was sent to an orphanage in the country. After a year there, at the age of sixteen she was employed as a servant by Thomas Eklund, a 47-year old widowed country doctor, who had been married to a cold wife; his embittered daughter Minna hardly ever came to see him.
Eeva's presence is resented from the start by Lotta, an unhappily married woman friend of Thomas', and even more so when Thomas gradually becomes obsessed with the graceful girl, though he restrains himself from doing anything improper. Eeva, for her part, is unaware of the doctor's feelings and in fact resents being a servant to someone she believes to be wealthy and who belongs to the Swedish ruling class.
The atmosphere in the first two-thirds of the book, when Eeva is employed by the doctor, is tremendously well conveyed. The emotions under which the doctor labours, the pressures of two resentful women, and Eeva's deliberately self-contained nature all make for a tense read. It is all set in a Finnish countryside whose sights and scents are described in a most evocative manner.
Only occasionally in this part does the book take us to Helsinki, to show that Lauri, now a young man, has become part of a circle of conspirators led by his sinister but magnetic friend Sasha, and takes part in arguments about violent versus non-violent resistance. Compared with the deep feelings in the doctor's house, they seemed to me rather text-book, even if Lauri, who "had heard something like this a hundred times", felt that Sasha's arguments "sounded fresh, new, like snow nobody else had ever trodden on" (p.194)
Eevi and Lauri had lost touch with each other, and it would be a spoiler to describe how they resumed contact and how Eeva left the doctor's house to join Lauri in Helsinki - but it is all beautifully done.
But in Helsinki Lauri's involvement with Sasha creates problems, to put it mildly; and after some chapters in which nothing much happens, the painful tension rises again. I would have wished for a crisper end of the book, and could not see the point of the literary form which Helen Dunmore has used for the resolution in the last chapter - but until then it was a powerful read.