House of Orphans – Helen Dunmore

Rating: 5 stars

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Early this June, when Helen Dunmore died at the age of just 64, I was reading her novel House of Orphans, published originally in 2006; it’s only now, nearly nine weeks later, I feel able to put into writing my thoughts on the book.

House of Orphans is set in Finland in 1901, at a time of political unrest and ferment, as the Finnish people struggled to resist the power of the Russian Empire and the ever-tightening grip of the Tsarist Finn leader Bobrikov. Eeva is the young daughter of a revolutionary and after being orphaned  she has been sent far from her home city of Helsinki to an orphanage to be trained for suitable domestic work. Local doctor, Thomas, a widower living alone, offers her work as his housekeeper. He is drawn to her unusual and thoughtful presence, and understands that she is no simple uneducated girl, but is intelligent, well-read and an independent thinker.

Thomas is a kind and unusual doctor, prepared to use both modern methods of medicine and old-fashioned remedies. His generosity leads him to help Eeva to leave his home and go back to Helsinki to return to her childhood friend, Lauri, and seek a different way of life, far away from the orphanage and domestic servitude. What she finds is love and constancy from Lauri, and from a new friend Magda, and bitter betrayal from Lauri’s new “comrade” in the political struggle, Sasha.

The harshness of Finnish winters is vividly described, along with the grim realities of young people living under a harsh regime and struggling to make ends meet. The kindness of Thomas shines through the pages, as we see him helping all his regular patients, as well as the orphans, living in their own strict regime, and Eeva. But Helen Dunmore has created a three-dimensional character here and we understand that he is not without fault, and that his own daughter feels betrayed by him. Eeva is a complex young woman, and I felt immense sympathy for her long struggles and relieved that she’d found the loyal support of Thomas, Lauri and Magda.

I felt that Dunmore had shown us a glimpse through a crack into lighted rooms in which they were all living and breathing. In some ways I wanted to know what happened next to the leading characters, so real had they become to me by the end of the book. But mostly I felt I’d been privileged to witness these scenes. That was enough, like looking at a famous painting and wondering about the real life of its subject.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Mistress of Rome – Kate Quinn


*Contains spoilers. Venture forward at your peril!*

kate quinnMistress of Rome is a historical novel set in the reign of the Emperor Domitian. It follows Thea, a Jewish slave escaped from the mass suicide at Masada, Lepida, her mistress, and Julia, the niece of the Emperor.

In the main, I enjoyed Mistress of Rome; it was easy reading and nicely pacey. Descriptions didn’t drag and it moved smartly through the action. There was also a lot of lovely historical detail. Quinn had obviously done her research on ancient Rome, and both Domitian’s administration and his (reported) darker proclivities. All of that was wonderful.

There were also some (unintentionally hilarious) glitches with the e-book version I read. In several places, the word ‘toga’ had somehow been replaced with the word ‘synthesis’, and any time it was supposed to be (I think) ‘white toga’, it said ‘lawn synthesis’. Very bizarre.

Why less than four stars, then? The narrative moved around from perspective to perspective freely, which was not necessarily such a bad thing, only it did so so quickly and through so many different characters that it wore slightly. But my main issue was with the characterisation of one of the main characters. As with Patricia Bracewell’s historical novels, also reviewed here, the book had a bit of a Madonna/whore complex. Mistress of Rome was slightly better for that in that Thea, the ‘good’ character, had a little more light and shade in her than Bracewell’s irritatingly irreproachable Emma, but Lepida, Thea’s antagonist, was a complete stereotype, a parody of the shallow, manipulative, sex-crazed woman that seems to haunt even female writers, still. Most irritatingly of all, a certain male character whom we are supposed to see as good and honourable is portrayed as completely weak to Lepida’s seductions and is promptly absolved of any responsibility.

[*SPOILER AHEAD*] 

When Lepida is eventually strangled to death by someone who her Machiavellian plotting has deeply wounded, this is presented as something that we ought to be pleased about, and think she got what she deserved. While Thea had a history, a complex emotional past, and a personality, Lepida never developed beyond a cardboard cut-out. Perhaps I ought to be more lenient, since I did enjoy the book in the main, but it is just so endlessly tiring to read books over and over again that present women along the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Where women who are anything less than kind are always flashing-eyed evil seductresses. It’s time for something new, and really it’s female authors who ought to be leading the way.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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