No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, July 09, 2018

2018/38: House of Orphans -- Helen Dunmore

When you’re forty-seven, he thought, spring is difficult. All that uprush of sap and melting water and fresh growth. Maybe the joy of it would come back to him when he was truly old. [loc. 1032]
The setting is Finland, in 1901 when it was still part of the Russian Empire. Dr Thomas Eklund lives alone at the forest's edge. He is still haunted by an old love affair, a betrayal of his wife and daughter: he is also, after the death of his wife, very lonely. Anna-Liisa, the despotic matron of the local orphanage, sends one of the orphans on placement to cook and clean and look after the doctor. Anna-Liisa is wary of this particular girl, Eeva Koskinen, who came to the rural orphanage from Helsinki after her father's death. 'They bring the city wherever they go.' And it's true that Eeva is somewhat more outspoken and independently-minded than the other girls.

Of course Thomas falls in love with Eeva.

But that is not the story, or at least not the end of it. Like an Ibsen play, there are layers of obligation and respectability, spoken and unspoken: there is Thomas' daughter Minna, who (like Thomas' friends and neighbours) has decided Views on Eeva's continued presence in her father's house. And there is Laurie, the childhood friend that Eeva left behind in Helsinki, who is becoming involved with a more extreme group of revolutionaries.

The contrast between the rural setting of the novel's first half and the fervid urban rush of the second half worked very well for me, as did the contrast -- and the similarities -- between Thomas Eklund and Eeva's dead Marxist father. I didn't feel that Helsinki was as vividly described as the countryside, but that might have been a reflection of Eeva's bemusement with the city's changes since her departure, and with the bustle of her life there. (Or it might be my own preference for the quietness of the forest, though Dunmore makes clear that there is plenty of noise and friction between the various people who live there.)

I'd have enjoyed this novel more if I'd liked any of the characters. Eeva was resilient and intelligent, but I didn't warm to her: Thomas felt more fallibly human, but weak. It was, though, an interesting window on a historical time and place I knew very little about. And Helen Dunmore's prose is always worth reading twice, just to see how she produces her almost painterly effects -- though I could have done without the frequent POV switches, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, which were sometimes confusing and added to a sense of detachment.

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