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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The Mothers – Brit Bennett

Rating: 5 stars

the mothers.jpgIf you read one book this year (assuming you still have enough time – it is nearly Christmas), make it Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. The Mothers tells the story of a close-knit African-American Christian community, and centres around the lives of two women within it, Nadia and Aubrey. It relates Nadia’s teenage romance with the local pastor’s son Luke, and the pregnancy, abortion and cover-up that result from it.

It’s a contemporary novel, dealing with a number of difficult issues, but it has a lightness of touch, a complexity and a sensitivity that mean that the story and characters dominate, and it doesn’t feel moralising (perhaps because it’s not).

The Mothers is a story centred on women and their place in a small community, and though it focuses on two relationships with men – Nadia and Aubrey’s with Luke, and Nadia’s with her father – these relationships don’t dominate, and what emerges as the most significant and enduring relationship is that between Nadia and Aubrey.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone. Although women are the main players, and a lot of it focuses on female experience, it’s a book that ranges widely and touches all areas of society. It’s also pacy and engaging. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. If you haven’t already read it, read it right now. I promise you won’t regret it.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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