Helen Dunmore: Intimations of immortality

Helen Dunmore's new novel returns to the landscape of her bestseller, The Siege. She talks to Christina Patterson about transformation and terror
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Helen Dunmore wept when she heard extracts from The Siege on the radio. For many writers, to scale the peaks of Book at Bedtime would be quite thrilling enough, but these were not the cosy, curl-up-with-your-cocoa tones of Radio 4. This was Radio Petersburg and the extracts were in Russian. Dunmore's novel, portraying one of the most painful, and significant, periods in Russian history, has just been broadcast in the very city in which it was set. It's hard to imagine a greater accolade.

It was Dunmore's third novel, A Spell of Winter, which won the inaugural Orange prize and shot her into the major league, but it was The Siege that placed her firmly on the international stage. It was The Siege, too, which won her a place in the cafés and kitchens of Middle England, as darling of that publisher's pot of gold, the reading group. Last year, it was picked as the set text for Bristol's annual "Great Reading Adventure". Bristol was itself a city under siege as bookshops, businesses, schools and libraries joined in a mass imaginative reenactment of the myriad horrors of a wartime Russian winter. Never have the nuances of hunger been more widely anatomised over chardonnay and kettle chips.

If Helen Dunmore is in any way affected by her new-found status, or her massive readership, she doesn't show it. "I don't know any writers who really think about the external life of their books while they're writing," she tells me with a shrug. "It's the job of the writer to write and it's the job of the reader to read." It's a job she has taken seriously since she was a child. "I can remember writing poems and using very traditional forms," she explains. "By the time I was seven or eight I'd decided that that's what I was going to do. It sounds unlikely, but it was a very strong thing about language - loving the sound of words and the music they made. It's a very strong apprenticeship."

It is indeed. It is also, as most poets know, not usually a lucrative one. While Dunmore never stopped writing, or believing in her vocation, she found the usual ways of making ends meet. She did secretarial work and, most of all, she taught - in primary schools, universities, in workshops and on endless creative writing courses. Her poetry, which she started publishing at 22, garnered widespread reviews and praise, but it was hardly a path to fame and fortune. The path from poetry-reading-in-the-pub to Penguin's gleaming offices in the Strand may have been relatively smooth, but it certainly hasn't been short.

Perched at a boardroom table in an almost parodically corporate fifth-floor office (one clearly better suited to Powerpoint presentations than to ruminations on the muse), Helen Dunmore is, as always, serene. Her smile, and manner, haven't changed in the 15 or so years since we first met - and neither, it seems, has her appearance. She is, in fact, a glowing advertisement for days spent forging poems and prose out of misery and pain. Mild-mannered, she writes with passionate intensity about the raw extremes of human experience. Startlingly slender, she writes with full-blooded lyricism and vivid, mouth-watering detail about food. Such sensual lyricism, in fact, that my reading for the interview was punctuated by frequent forays to the fridge.

A bowl of berries at midnight was one of the less calorific snacks I can lay at Dunmore's door. It was triggered by a love poem, "Wild Strawberries", from her collection The Raw Garden, and a description of eating berries in the forest from her new novel, House of Orphans (Fig Tree, £17.99). Set in Finland in 1901, it is, in more ways than one, a return to the landscape of The Siege. The physical terrain - forests, lakes and vast skies - is similar, of course, but, more importantly, so is the theme. Like The Siege, House of Orphans explores the impact of history on individual lives, the fight against poverty and hunger and the struggle, both for a nation and for the individual, to survive. This is Finland at a time of political upheaval, when the power of the Russian empire over its subject peoples is growing more oppressive, but so is resistance to the Tsar's rule.

It is, says Dunmore, who lived in Finland for two years, a place that "nobody knows about, hidden from us in time and space. It doesn't exist any more," she adds, "and in a way that gives us a great freedom. If you try to produce a simulacrum of reality, it can seem very false."

She has, she explains, an aversion to historical fiction which is "very larded with detail": "When I was writing The Siege I did that by trying to absorb a huge amount of material so that I could put out my hand and it's there. I don't have to ask myself what's in that shop around the corner because I know. With this book I felt I had to take people into a landscape that would be very powerful and also very character-driven. It's a book about individuals changing and transforming because they've got to, and about society struggling against its bond and people wanting something different and not knowing how they're going to get it, and crashing about sometimes and destroying it in order to create something new."

It is, in other words, extremely ambitious, but it couldn't read much less like the over-egged historical fiction Dunmore despises. Like the Finnish landscape it depicts, it feels, in fact, light and airy, at times like an amble through one of those beautiful birch forests, where you might pause to savour a handful of strawberries, "flushed deep red"; at other times like sipping good coffee in a café teeming with passionate political debate and young revolutionaries eager to make their mark.

What we care about here, as in all Dunmore's work, is the characters and their stories. At the novel's heart is Eeva, the young orphaned daughter of a revolutionary in Helsinki who is sent to an orphanage in the countryside and then to work as housekeeper for Thomas, a widowed country doctor. Thomas becomes increasingly obsessed by the beautiful young girl who works with quiet efficiency but, his neighbours tell him, an unseemly lack of subservience. Forced out by the weight of local disapproval, Eeva escapes back to Helsinki, to her childhood companion Lauri and a crucible of political ferment.

"I wanted to get that feeling of how we don't yet know about how cities work," says Dunmore,"because everyone's been in the countryside until really recently. This sense of what these big industrial cities are like when they're enormous and nobody knows how they work. Every country in Europe seemed to ascribe moral evil to the city and moral virtue to the countryside. I wanted to write about that and against that the countryside, where people have an enormous amount of emotion about locality, which is very primitive and compex."

In tackling industrialisation, Dunmore is, of course, following in the footsteps of the great Victorians, writers like Dickens, Mrs Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë. Like them, too, she is fascinated by what people manage to do in life against the odds. Eeva, says Dunmore, is like Jane Eyre in refusing "certain destinies". She is also part of a much wider climate of rebellion against the established order. "The thing about orphans is not just that they don't have parents, but that they don't have patterns," Dunmore explains. "Your parents show you the patterns, and I suppose societies are like that, too. What happened in the Soviet Union is when you decide to be orphaned, you turn away and you say I don't care... That's like saying no, we're not going to live in the house of our fathers."

It's a transition that is rarely made without violence and one that raises the perennial - and all too timely - question of how far people are prepared to go in pursuit of their political objectives. "I've seen people in political groups," says Dunmore. "I know the language. Particularly when you're male and young, you feel so potent. Even when they talk about death, with some of these men it's from the standpoint that they believe in their own immortality."

If bids for immortality are in the offing, I'd say that Helen Dunmore has a better chance than most. She has written another novel of great tenderness and beauty, one that celebrates both the small pleasures and the grand passions, and which ranges over her characters, and their stories, with a profoundly compassionate eye. "They're doing what we all do, aren't they?" says Dunmore with a gentle smile. "I'm not saying that any of them are on the wrong track."


Helen Dunmore was born in Yorkshire in 1952. She studied English at York University before spending two years teaching English in Finland. She has taught at the Universities of Glamorgan and Bristol as well as on a wide range of creative writing courses. Her poetry collections, all published by Bloodaxe, include The Apple Fall (1983), The Raw Garden (1988) and Out of the Blue (2001). She started writing fiction for children - books include Going to Egypt (1991), and Ingo (2005) - and published her first novel for adults, Zennor in Darkness, in 1993. Her other novels include A Spell of Winter (1995), which won the inaugural Orange Prize, The Siege (2001) and Mourning Ruby (2003). She lives in Bristol with her husband, Frank, and their daughter, Tess.