House of Orphans

Written by Helen Dunmore
Review by Sarah Bower

Set in Finland in 1901, House of Orphans tells the stories of Eeva and Lauri, childhood friends separated by death and politics. Eeva grows up in an orphanage and is sent to work for a doctor, Thomas, who becomes obsessed with her. Lauri, influenced by the ideologue, Sasha, becomes involved in resistance to Russian rule and ultimately in a plot to assassinate the governor. It is a novel of obsessions, both personal and ideological showing how freedom fighters – or terrorists, depending on your viewpoint – become politicised by their personal experience rather than by nebulous theories.

As you would expect of Helen Dunmore, the prose is exquisite, full of wonderfully sensuous descriptions of food and gardens, children’s chubby calves encased in stout boots, a woman giving birth in a sauna, a silk patchwork quilt and enough different ways of describing snow to compete with the Inuit. The story begins at a leisurely pace building layer upon layer of minutely observed feelings and experiences in the way you might stack crepes or fold filo pastry. You are seduced almost without noticing, drawn into a world of brutal contrasts between duty and desire, love and politics, youth and age.

This is a wonderful novel, sharply observed with every word made to count and every image constructed to make the reader think; as much a parable for today as an account of an historical period. Highly recommended.