review page logo
Helen Dunmore
What inspired you to write about a little known chapter of history in THE HOUSE OF ORPHANS?
I didn’t really consider whether or not it was well known. The story of the Russian Empire in the early twentieth century is so dramatic and extraordinary that I knew it would make wonderful material for a novel. I knew Finland pretty well, from living there, and I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between Finland and Russia, and the way in which Finns first won and later maintained their independence, against enormous odds. . Each one of my historical novels has come from a longstanding interest in the place, people and period, and this was certainly the case with House of Orphans. Looking back, I see a very strong connection between The Siege and House of Orphans. In The Siege, Leningrad is threatened by German invaders, and the Soviet Union - Russia herself - is in danger of losing her identity and freedom. In House of Orphans Russia itself is the overwhelming force that has taken control of its neighbours.
The sense of landscape in your books is always very affecting. In the HOUSE OF ORPHANS it is particularly wonderfully evoked. The oppressive nature of the great forest seems to act as a metaphor for the situation of Finland at the time. How important is landscape to you in your books?
Immensely important. The landscape is not a backdrop but an essential part of the novel: in a sense landscape is a character. When I look back at House of Orphans I realise how much the mood of the landscape echoes the action and the development of the human characters. For example, Thomas and Lotta share very deep emotions about their childhood places but those same lakes and forests disturb and even repel Eeva, because she feels trapped by them. House of Orphans also follows a year and the changes of season which are so dramatic in Finland. That is, the novel opens with the first signs of thaw in late winter, and ends in the snow of the following winter, as Sasha dies. The Finnish landscape has a very particular beauty; one of its strongest qualities is the sense of endless space, and of lakes and forest stretching north to the tundra, and east into Russia. In winter the Baltic freezes, which again alters the landscape completely as sea becomes solid. I also wanted to write about a city landscape at a time of very rapid change, as people flooded to the city, old wooden buildings were torn down and replaced by stone buildings, industry grew, new public buildings sprang up - so that someone who had been away from Helsinki for ten years might have found parts of the city almost unrecognisable. Eeva responds with excitement to these huge changes, because for her they bring the chance of a new life.
Your novel, A SPELL OF WINTER, deals with the incestuous relationship between a brother and sister. In THE HOUSE OF ORPHANS the relationships between Dr Eklund/Eeva and Lauri/Eeva (although none of them blood-related) felt a bit uncomfortable. What draws you to writing about difficult relationships?
I think that the relationship between Thomas and Eeva is marked by great restraint on both sides, in the end. Thomas is overwhelmed by a passion for this young woman, and he doesn¹t completely understand this passion, where it comes from or what it means in his life. As a servant living under his roof Eeva is very vulnerable and could so easily have been persuaded or coerced into a sexual relationship; however, not only is Eeva much stronger than she at first appears, but the doctor is not a predator. If the relationship is difficult it is perhaps because the love is so one-sided, and also because these two people are at quite different stages in their lives. Their lives intersect but cannot truly meet. For this reason their journey across the Finnish countryside is the most profound part of their relationship, because it is bound to end. There¹s no shared destination. It surprises me that you find the relationship between Lauri and Eeva uncomfortable, but then each reader brings different things to a book. I’m very hesitant as an author about seeming to give any definitive interpretation, because I don’t believe authors can do that. But of course I have my own opinions! One of the most interesting things about writing novels, for me, is what one discards. That is, certain scenes which are cut from the finished novel the pasts and futures which are outside its frame.
The interrogations, forced confessions, suicide assassins all had an uncomfortably familiar ring. Were contemporary parallels in your consciousness at the time of writing?
Yes, I think that they were, as the research and the writing went on. In Sasha I was trying to create a character who was in fact capable of any act of violence, and to show how he had arrived at this point. He is persuasive, manipulative and magnetic. I was very interested in his influence on others. The use of double agents and indeed double double agents was practised by the Tsarist secret police. Some of their methods were inherited by the KGB; the methods of the ‘closed revolutionary cell’ have been inherited by political activists all over the world. It is really striking how many debates were taking place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about the use of violence to achieve political ends, the legitimacy of terror as a weapon, and the rights and wrongs of injuring or killing innocent bystanders.
Eeva at one point is telling Magda about her life and she thinks “Suddenly it felt as if she had given her past to Magda for Magda to make use of it”. How does a writer ‘make use of the past’ when writing an historical novel like THE HOUSE OF ORPHANS.
For me the key is to find a point of imaginative entry into the past. This can come in all kinds of ways. For example the old Finnish tradition of being ‘born in the sauna’ (very wise, because it is sterile due to the great heat used there) led directly to the scene of Thomas’ birth, and then indirectly to the scene where Eeva bathes in the sauna and Thomas becomes hopelessly in love with her. I realised that ways of birth were quite significant in House of Orphans both literally, as in childbirth, and metaphorically, as in how a nation can come to birth. There are examples of coercive, even cruel birth, when a husband wants nothing but a wife who works, produces children and is available for sex. There’s the rather idyllic birth of Thomas, where his mother abandons upper class convention and returns to the safety and independence of the sauna. And of course there’s national independence struggling to be born, and individuals struggling to possess the lives into which they’ve been born. This is just a tiny example but I do believe that a writer has to inhabit the past rather than make use of it, if the book is to work.
We always like to know - who are your literary influences?
It’s hard to list them there are so many writers whose work I’ve loved that it seems ungrateful to name some and not others. Among novelists, Tolstoy and Turgenev were early, very important influences on me. So were Doris Lessing, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Philippa Pearce, Kingsley Amis, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Bowen and hosts of others. I read a lot of poetry and have always done so. At the moment I’m reading Louis MacNeice’s collected poems, and a new collection from Ian Duhig.
Helen Dunmore

Recommend this site to a friend

Find us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter