Friday, 5 July 2013

'My life will be over if I stay'

 About halfway through this novel, our heroine, Eeva, a young Finnish woman sent to an orphanage after her father's death, and having escaped from there into service, reflects on her role as a servant in an ageing doctor's house, and how she may be settling into it too easily. 'In the House of Orphans Sirrka used to talk about 'my floors' or 'my tiles'... And then Sirrka would stare down the river of waxed, glowing wood with possessive pride. Eeva smoothed her hand over the silky top of his desk. I could get like Sirrka if I stayed here too long. I must not get like her... In the House of Orphans they made us afraid. They made us obedient on the outside, no matter what we felt like inside... So you look at Sirrka... She's decent, she works hard. But she's living a life which has already been taken away from her... I've got to go now. My life will be over if I stay. I'll go on living, I won't be able to help it, but it won't be my life. I'll grow pleased with how well I serve him. I'll start talking about 'my kitchen', just like Sirrka used to say...' Eeva expresses a similar thought earlier in the novel, when she talks about not wanting to be made back into an 'orphan', with a clear awareness that this is an identity, rather than just a statement of fact.

I think that I've read too many books like this - although I'm not quite sure what I mean by 'like this'. (I didn't enjoy Helen Dunmore's earlier novel The Siege, either). Perhaps it's something about the paint-by-numbers feel to the narrative. Firstly, take a relatively unknown nineteenth-century or twentieth-century snippet of European history, which, to be fair, is usually genuinely fascinating - this account of Finland's suffering under Russian rule before the First World War is something that I enjoyed learning more about. Secondly, super-impose a somewhat cliched plotline onto this historical backdrop, with bonus points if it can 'mirror' present day events and therefore have 'relevance', although, to continue to be fair, this is often as much a creation of the publisher's marketing for the novel as the author's intentions. (The hook for this novel, by the way, is 'terrorism'.) Thirdly, add a 'spirited' heroine - Eeva is clever, independent and determined to carve out a life for herself under unfavourable circumstances. Unfortunately, she isn't much else.

Eeva's 'spirit' seems to prevent the story from carrying any real historical weight, by focusing on the 'exception' who manages to escape from the drab life of the orphanage, rather than the orphans who have to stay, the ones who, by her account, have no lives left to live.  I found myself wondering if it would have been more interesting to think more closely about these orphans, who, after all, do have to carry on living, and the psychological strategies - such as pride in clean floors - that they find to survive. Instead, we get a character like Eeva, who, of course, is middle-class, educated, and so essentially not an orphan, not like them. In service, an interfering friend of the doctor's, Lotta, insults Eeva by assuming she is illiterate, but of course the irony of the situation is that Eeva cannot only read but has studied several languages. What if Eeva had been illiterate - what if she had been less spirited, less impulsive, more normal? I wanted to know what would have happened to her then.

Eeva's story, although a dominant strand, is not the only voice in this book; we also hear from the doctor, Thomas, who is predictably in love with her, and her old childhood friend Lauri and his new friend Sasha, who is becoming increasingly enmeshed in the ideological struggle against Russian rule in Finland. However, this strand, too, is largely patterned and predictable, especially as I read it alongside Lionel Shriver's much more illuminating terrorist satire, The New Republic. Finland, too, failed to come alive for me in this narrative. Dunmore chooses to modernise the dialogue to an extent, which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing; historical novels can become bogged down by the weight of accuracy, and attempting to imitate a style of speaking which no living person has ever heard is largely a lost cause. However, having made this narrative choice, she needed to strongly convey her early twentieth-century Finnish setting through description, mindset and everyday detail, and I don't think she does this. Her descriptive writing is sparse and commonplace; for example, 'Autumn was on its way. You could smell it, even though the sun still shone and the leaves on the birches hadn't yet changed colour. But they were stiff and dry. They rattled when the wind blew through them, and the early mornings were chill.' There is little in this to convey either a specific autumn or a specific country.

Most frustratingly, though, Dunmore seems to deliberately create characters, like Eeva, who don't conform to their time, and explores their modern mindsets - even Sasha would hardly be unfamiliar to a modern-day audience. Laurie fits into this category as well, with his speculation about women's rights, and even Dr. Thomas challenges traditional orthodoxies with his charitable care for the poor. Although I don't necessarily think that it is historically inaccurate to portray characters like this, again, I would find it more interesting to enter the heads of those who did conform, or who were more muddled or conflicted about what is right. This is a historical novel, like so many, that avoids the restrictions imposed by history, and tells us modern-day stories translated into a more exciting setting.

Next week's post will be on Monday 15th July instead due to holidays, conferences, and hen weekends.

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