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A tale of three people and two loves,
This review is from: House of Orphans (Hardcover)
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.