Helen Dunmore knows what goes into the telling of a good story: solid characterisation, a suspenseful plot, and fluent narration. House of Orphans, like her earlier book The Siege, is an historical novel but doesn’t read too much like one since you are not overwhelmed by attention to period detail or irritated by glaring anachronisms. In this respect, it is in the tradition of A Tale of Two Cities, and the author sets the story in early twentieth-century Finland, during a time of political turmoil, in order to explore the conditions under which people can be seduced by extreme politics and terrorism – a subject with obvious resonance today. The novel opens in 1901, when the Finnish were mounting a fierce resistance to the growing ‘Russification’ of their country, at the same time as they were being influenced by the revolutionary socialism of their Russian neighbour. A brief historical context is helpfully appended, as most readers won’t be aware of the events that led up to the assassination in 1904 of Bobrikov, the pro-Tsarist Governor-General of Finland. It’s no surprise to learn that Dunmore has lived in Finland, and her familiarity with the landscape and people augments her research, giving the novel an admirably authentic texture.
The book’s title refers to an orphanage which houses young girls rescued from the ‘immorality’ of the streets and prepares them, under the iron rule of the matron Anna Liisa, for a life in domestic service. When the recently widowed, middle-aged doctor who ministers to the orphans takes one of