Helen Dunmore writes best when she writes the minutiae of the individual. She has an almost unerring eye for emotion and the repression of it, for personal triumph and failure, for the special "in-betweens” of love and psychosis. Which is why, I suppose, I enjoyed her Orange-Prize winning A Spell of Winter (1995) so much a couple of years ago. That novel with its incestuous siblings and poetical wildness captured compulsive love and mental disturbance quite beautifully; further, Cathy’s terrible blossoming into maturity, trammelled as she is between her brother and her predatory governess Miss Gallagher, is as intimate and moving a portrait of girlhood and womanhood as I’ve read. Unfortunately Dunmore’s new novel, House of Orphans, has only shadows of this early richness. It is at its best in its early stages – similarly set in a glorious landscape and again stimulated by the sexual flutterings and emotional depravities of flawed persons – but flags inexorably through its later half as the narrative dissipates into political commentary.
The initial scene is Finland at the beginning of the 20th century (the blurb and the actual text disagree as to whether it is 1901 or 1902. Safe to say that I don’t know enough Finnish history to confirm either way…) and Eeva, the adolescent and recently orphaned daughter of a Marxist agitator, has been removed from her home in Helsinki and placed in a House of Orphans in the country. There she is expected to learn the skills requisite for a useful life in domestic service and, indeed, under the tutelage of Anna-Liisa – “honest, decent enough but not sharp” or particularly kindly – quickly graduates to the position of housekeeper for Dr. Thomas Eklund, a local widower in his late 40s. But independently minded and quick-witted Eeva refuses to settle to her new country life, and yearns often for Helsinki and the “comrades” left behind, in particular Lauri, the son of her father’s best friend. She is all too aware that Finland is in political ferment while she sweeps floors and cleans display china; that its Russian rulers, its Swedish aristocracy (of whom Dr. Eklund is one) and its Finnish workers are headed for conflict, even revolutionary disaster. Meanwhile, Thomas develops a (fascinatingly) sexualised, emotional dependency on his new sixteen-year old servant, confusing his conflicted emotions for his own estranged daughter, Minna, and the fall-out from an affair with a young girl years before, for love.
All of this beginning part is delicately rendered by Dunmore: the orphanage with its own chill hierarchy, the grandeur of the great forests that stretch as far as the eye can see from Eklund’s estate, the silence of the snows, the treachery of the ice, the brave grim battle of living in company with such wildness. Still it is Eklund himself who feels most like vintage Dunmore. Self-deprecating, weak-willed, desperate yet kind, passionate, gentle, he has that flavour of damaged humanity reminiscent of A Spell of Winter. His feelings for Eeva are compulsive, verging on psychosis, but tender too and, since he never acts upon them, sympathetic, somehow acceptable. Similarly, his oldest friend and fellow aristocratic Swede Lotta Erikkson (who has long nursed an unrequited love of her own) is well-constructed, moving even. Locked into a loveless marriage, bearing barrenness and loneliness with a Christ-like forbearance, she stands as Dunmore’s first sympathetic “older woman” character. And I can’t help but feel that she (Dunmore that is) would do better, write better, if she didn’t cling to young women so ardently in her fiction. Lotta is lively with conflict and interest, while young Eeva is a frank disappointment: romanticised, distant, almost unrelentingly cold and cast fickly. This first half of the novel imagines her an educated and politicised creature, reading the Russian poets in the early hours before work begins and remembering revolutionary meetings in her father’s rooms. But all this disappears in the second half of the novel, along with Dr. Eklund, Lotta and the gloriousness of the Finnish landscape.
In this second section Eeva returns to Helsinki (with Eklund’s help) and is reunited with the erstwhile Lauri, now a Marxist revolutionary himself and involved in a plot to assassinate an important Russian official, thereby catapulting Finland into open civil conflict. [Historical Note: I hardly knew this but apparently, by 1902, Finland had been under the nominal control of the Tsars for a hundred years and heavily under the thumb of a Russian Governer-General supported by the secret police, the Okhrana.] Eeva’s own selfhood is quickly subsumed in a love affair with Lauri (for whom she is pleased to knit and make savoury dumplings) and by his doubts concerning the rightness of politically motivated terrorism. She no longer has aspirations of her own or opinions; all her emotional strength is lost, sapped out.
Ultimately House of Orphans is somewhat of a hybrid thing, initially intimate and cathartic (and excellent) and latterly a discursive analogy of current affairs. It seems clear that Lauri (and his group of Russian and Finnish comrades) are ciphers for Palestinians, or Iraqis, or disillusioned, disenfranchised youth anywhere in the modern world. Dunmore shows them as fringe, led by the egotistical “Sasha” and on fire with rhetoric, right in thought (Russia *is* repressive, worker’s conditions *are* bad) wrong in action (killing is no solution etc.):
“It was easier when they went to meetings. Sasha always knew where to go, when to set out, which courtyards to slip through and how to wait… At meetings, Lauri began to burn with the same fire as the others. He drank in speeches and applauded until his watchful thoughts were swept away and he rose and fell on the wave that was lifting them all, ready to hurl them into the future. He wanted to topple, to overthrow, yes, to change everything utterly. He was sure with the same sameness.”
Sasha talks of sacrificing “crocodiles of schoolchildren” to save a hundred more from Russification, of women activists carrying their babies swaddled with bombs up to officials and exploding both in glorious retribution, of explosives thrown into crowds or planted in vehicles. The rhetoric is as recognizable as the situation and the thrust of Dunmore’s position is only yet another reworking of familiar liberal justifications for extremism: desperation, naivety, poverty, alienation and (because its Dunmore), personal psychosis. There is something both naïve and faintly pedestrian about this. Must history be marshalled so ruthlessly to tell the story of the present? Or character warped and reshaped to fit a conception of our times or a “message” to them?
As the novel closes Dunmore abandons the successful micro-world of character yet further in a series of POV vignettes designed to open the novel’s significance outwards. Thus we come face to face with terror’s intended victims, followed in quick succession by Thomas, Lauri and then Sasha (Eeva is lost in this). All of which, sadly, stands to dissipate the last of the successful emotional strands that hung over from the first part of the novel. The attempt at mingling Dunmore’s wonderful take on the personal with the analogously political is undoubtedly an ambitious one, but unsuccessful. In the end there is no cohesion; the two halves standing in stark contrast, achingly alien to each other.
Nevertheless, I *still* continue to hold Dunmore in high esteem and House of Orphans, flawed as it is, does reward reading. Wait for the paperback, or even better, go buy A Spell of Winter right now… ;-)
Incidentally I finally tracked down the very-short shortlist for the Orange Prize Award for New Writers (in a pamplet in Waterstones...the website doesn't have it as far as I can see):
Olga Grushin : The Dream Life of Sukhanov
Yiyun Li : A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
I'm very, very pleased to see Alderman up there (link is to my earlier post on the novel) and hope very much that she wins. As you might expect I shall be reading the other two in due course (if I can pack them in amongst the main nominees!). :-)