October 22, 2006

Review of 'The House of Orphans'

Review of Helen Dunmore’s House of the Orphans

Prior to reading Helen Dunmore’s House of Orphans the prospect of trudging through a 330 page novel devoted to Finnish history was nearly as enticing as transferring to a Maths and Physics degree. However, these fears were quickly and deftly dispelled after the first few pages of Dunmore’s enthralling latest offering.

Beginning in 1902, this bildungsroman (novel concentrating on the development of a protagonist) traces the incredible tale of Eeva, a young girl from Helsinki whose fight against injustice and corruption mirrors the one fought by many in Finland. Centering on Eeva’s relationship both to the kindly old country doctor for whom she keeps house and a group of socialist revolutionaries from Helsinki, we witness Eeva’s oppression at the hands of the odious Finnish aristocracy.

Brimming with everything one wants from a historical novel, we see Eeva experience class tension, conflict and passion. Repeatedly discriminated against because of her class, Eeva recognises the insidious logic of her oppressors: ‘They won’t teach you anything that lets you escape.’ She develops into an idealistic and passionate young woman; through her Dunmore most clearly communicates anti-oppression thread that runs throughout the novel: Eeva’s situation seems to be a microcosm of the whole of Finland at the time. It is this oppression that ignites her contemporaries’ voracious desire for change.

Luckily Dunmore resists the temptation to stuff the novel with historical detail or arcane political comment. The rudiments of the situation are concisely communicated: Russia’s imperial leadership is tightening its oppressive grip on Finland and perpetuating the abuse of working people such as Eeva. This oppression leads Eeva to leave her job as a servant and move to Helsinki, a place which, in contrast to the stagnation of Eva’s orphanage and bucolic life, is portrayed as vibrant and full of ideas.

In Helsinki Eeva meet up with Lauri, a childhood friend who has been indoctrinated by some odious fantasists. Their insistence that he assassinate a high up tsarist official eventually leads to his capture by the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police. Eeva petititions Dr Erlkund, whose actions in securing Lauri’s release starkly illustrate the endemic corruption of the political system.

The real genius of the novel is Dunmore’s humane characterisation; this allows the characters to transcend their political circumstances. Jumping between streams of consciousness and dialogue, Dunmore exhibits highly developed characters. We see the impassioned and often distraught thoughts of Eeva, the idealist heroine, while also viewing those of her oppressors. At the end of the novel Dunmore shows us Bobrikov, the high-ranking Tsarist official whom Lauri was commissioned to kill. Now a decrepit and pitiful old man he is distraught at his poor blood circulation, and Lauri’s decision not to assassinate him seems vindicated.

With this novel Dunmore has humanised history and given us a studied portrait of the profound effect historical and political conflict can have on ordinary people, managing to breathe fresh life into Finish history in the process.


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