House of Orphans, by Helen Dunmore

Must you smash things to free them?
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The Independent Culture

What does it mean to belong to yourself? And what are the political consequences of living in a world in which it is not always possible to do so; a world in which you may have to be someone's servant or, indeed, have the consequences of your mistakes or unrequited love as your master?

When her Marxist revolutionary father dies, proclaiming that he has wasted his life, Eeva Koskinen is sent to the House of Orphans in the Finnish forests far from Helsinki. She leaves behind her childhood friend Lauri and a life of studying at an old card table while "people came and went" and urgent political meetings were conducted - including one in which a murder may have been planned and then, afterwards, carried out.

The main action of the novel begins in Finland in 1901. This is the Grand Duchy of Finland, of course, part of the Russian Empire, and, following the February Manifesto of 1899, undergoing further "Russification" under the orders of the Tsar and the Governor General of Finland, Nikolai Bobrokov. The House of Orphans, under the cruel, moralistic rule of Anna-Liisa, prepares its children for service. When Eeva is placed in the house of the liberal Swedish doctor Thomas Eklund, she begins to find herself again: to belong to herself a little more. But can you be free while keeping house for someone, however kind they are?

Meanwhile, Thomas has his own questions to answer. Is he more free than Eeva, even with his big house and servants? Condemned to a solitary life after the death of his wife, and still dealing with the consequences of an affair with a friend of his daughter's, he delivers babies and makes herbal remedies from lemons and nettles. Despite the actions of his conservative friend Lotta and his daughter Minna, he begins to fall in love with Eeva. In Helsinki Lauri and his new friend Sasha prepare for revolution, and plot the murder of Nikolai Bobrokov. When Thomas asks Eeva if she would like to write a letter, she naturally writes to Lauri and soon they are reunited. But this poses more questions. Is it enough to simply belong to yourself or do you need to belong to history, politics and revolution for your life to mean something? But, if you do that, are you simply taking other's lives as if they belonged to you? Can you make decisions for other people or only, ultimately, for yourself?

At one point in the novel, Eeva, contemplating some of Thomas's ancestral china that no one ever uses, and that she is not really allowed to touch, realises that it is her choice whether or not to drop the plate. "She could make things happen. She nodded at the tiny, gesticulating painted figures, and then she laid the plate on the table, wiped it with a clean cloth, and replaced it in the glass cabinet. The painted man stayed as he was, bowed over, fingers flourishing. He would never trip over the loose ribbon of his shoe... Maybe he would rather be smashed. Maybe he'd rather fly into a thousand pieces, and be free." So do you have to smash things up to make them free - or is there another way? Perhaps we are all like the figures on the china plate, with the potential to be locked in a cabinet or smashed on the floor. But if we belonged to ourselves, and if it was our choice and no one else's, then what would we do?

This novel - part love story, part tragedy, part profound political meditation - shows that Helen Dunmore is back on dazzling form. Her prose, as always, is exquisite, but never overwritten. Minna, we learn, has "wiped off the years of her childhood like a teacher wiping a slate with incorrect sums on it". Dunmore is particularly skilled at aligning the domestic with the political - spheres that are only artificially separated anyway - and using the detail of the past to create a narrative that is complex and contemporary. It's only a shame that this novel comes with an image of a pinafore full of apples on the front. They may as well have stickered it with: "Men Keep Out" or, even, "Coach Tours Welcome". But Dunmore is one of our most intelligent and provocative writers, and everyone should read her work.