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The Siege - Helen Dunmore
Member Name: historywitch
The Siege - Helen Dunmore
Advantages: good story, beautifully told
Disadvantages: some might be put off by the siege parts
Anna is the daughter of a Russian poet, mistrusted by the regime and by her neighbours, constantly on guard against appearing less than loyal to the Soviet government. Working in a nursery she also cares for her little brother Kolya, born when she was 17 and the cause of her mother's death. When the news of the German army's approach reaches the city they are joined in their apartment by an aging actress, Marina, who has a mysterious relationship with her father. As the siege begins and their struggle for life becomes more dangerous and tenuous she is thrown into the path of Andrei, a doctor at the hospital, struggling to save lives with little medicine and even less food. The story ends at the end of the first siege winter (the siege ended in 1944 so we don't get to see the siege to the end) but can the little family survive the terrible privations of a winter when over half of the city's population (over 1 million) are left dead?
Having written the synopsis it is clear that the story does sound a bit like the plot of a poor historical romance, I am not sure that having read the plot beforehand that I would have chosen to read this book. That would have been a crying shame because I then would have missed out on a super book that brings the whole time period to heart pounding and breath-taking life. Beginning with the text of the original German edict to destroy Leningrad (St Petersburg), the descriptions of the siege were incredibly vivid and often disturbing to read. With several million people to feed and the Germans cutting off supply lines, the inhabitants of the city turn to whatever means they can to supplement their meagre bread supply, including boiling leather for soup and eating wallpaper paste. The old and the young are the first to go, taken by hunger, the bitter cold or disease, their bodies left in the streets and prey for those who are desperate for food. Society folds and people do anything they can to survive, begging, borrowing and stealing what they can. All of this horror is gently and sympathetically conveyed by Dunmore, without dwelling on the gory details, the situation is made clear but isn't forced into your face at every opportunity. The effects of hunger and cold are shocking but you join with Anna and her family in their battle for survival, sharing their joy at an extra 100g of lard or the unexpected luxury of a small jar of jam. As an aside from the main story we follow the struggles of Pavlov, the man charged with feeding the population of the city and the devastating decisions he has to make, weighing the city's resources against the mouths he has to feed. This for me was the strongest part of the book as the city becomes almost another character in the story, bringing the other characters to life and making what could have been 'just' another love story something stronger and better.
The perspective of the book shifted between the characters, allowing them to speak from themselves, a very useful tool to explain the developments in the story. If we had not been able to have this extra insight into some of the characters they would without doubt have seemed shallow and difficult to comprehend, especially given the different nature of Russian culture and society to our own. Being able to 'read' the diary of Anna's father allowed us to see his motivations and to understand his actions which were infuriating and incomprehensible to me when seen purely through the eyes of his daughter, Anna. Anna herself is not particularly lovable and I failed to empathise with her relationship with Andrei. It was obvious that the relationship was going to happen-he is mentioned on the back cover and is the only eligible male who appears in the book. This part of the story is very contrived and was quite awkward in places, but only seen in retrospect i.e. when I began to think about the synopsis as a prelude to this review. Whilst reading the book I totally believed in them and their story and I read the book in an afternoon desperate to know what happened at the end. Dunmore also includes the mystery of the actress Marina which is a lovely counterpoint to the straightforward story of Anna and Andrei, with a sadder and more reflective tone which nonetheless binds the two stories together for the benefit of both. I was also fascinated to read the tidbits about life in communist Russia, communal living, the added fear of the black vans waiting to take you away, the caution about the language you used and the distrust of your neighbours and friends. If I had to be negative about this book I would say that sometimes the stories of the characters become secondary to the story of the siege , that when there are deaths we perhaps don't feel them as we should. However for me I felt that was a pretty good reflection of the struggle the characters were going through, in the struggle for life, surrounded by death how can you feel for someone who you may well be joining very soon yourself?
'The Siege' was an enjoyable and well-written book that I was able to immerse myself in totally. Frightening as it was in parts and depressing in others, there was hope throughout couched in beautifully sparse and well chosen language. If you are in the market for a worthy story of love and a struggle for life, in a strange country under the pall of communism and war then this is the book for you. The only thing I don't understand is why there are no other reviews for this book! Well worth a read.
Summary: great historical novel