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No, I Shall Not Wholly Die.*
The Siege - Helen Dunmore
Member Name: QueenElf
The Siege - Helen Dunmore
Advantages: Beautiful prose, haunting story.
Disadvantages: There will be plenty of people who won't read it.
I have been reading a lot of books recently due in some ways to the amazing amount of good new books out at the moment and also because other book reviews have caught my interest. I am familiar with Helen Dunmore's work but haven't read any of her more recent books, so finding The Siege in my library I set about reading it and managed it in a day's reading. Part of the interest also came from hearing the author speak at a local event some years ago, but the book drew me in to the story because of it's historical content.
The book is set in the city of Leningrad in the terrible winter of 1941 when Hitler ordered the city to be wiped out. History obviously tells us he doesn't succeed, but the siege was probably one of the worst in modern History with over half the population dead of starvation or acts of war before the worst of it was over. Because the story is based on research it's impact is appalling and hard for someone of any generation since to comprehend. Helen Dunmore is very precise in her interpretation of events with Russian history one of her interests. This makes the book so convincing it's hard to believe it's not a true story.
The story opens with the main character, Anna, working on the land at a small country retreat, away from the family home in Leningrad. So far the war hasn't touched them personally but rumours are rife. For her father, Michail Ilyich a popular writer, it's a worrying time when his work is starting to be seen as politically incorrect so its up to Anna to bring in the main wage, as an assistant teacher which enables her to have her brother, Koyla with her. When Koyla was born their mother died and the survival of the family rests on Anna's shoulders. But the guns of war are getting nearer and packing up all they can carry, the family decides it's safer in the city in their family apartment.
They take with them a mysterious woman, the banned actress Marina, whose friendship was more with Anna's father than her mother. Still, it's better to have an extra pair of hands in the early stages of the siege. Anna meets and falls in love with a hospital doctor, Andrei, whose help will later prove invaluable. For the winter is coming and with it the German army, bent on the complete annihilation of the people and the city of Leningrad.
Anna naturally is a wonderful character because she's the focus of the story but also since the author doesn't try to make a heroine out of her. Her career stalled when she was left with the upbringing of Kolya aged five though she enjoys her teaching it's a menial job and doesn't allow her to express herself except when she does a little sketching. Dunmore doesn't make her a tragic figure either. Anna has the normal frustrations of any woman in her twenties whose life is restricted. Later on she will be called on to make almost unimaginable sacrifices, but then everyone is in the same boat, it's just that Anna is the voice of the women of the city in the novel.
Michail is rarely mentioned except through the stories he tells the children. His memories of happier times gives the reader a clearer picture of the Russian party system and the fear of reprisals for trumped up charges. This is a Russia still reeling from its own civil wars and the aftermath. He's not a young man and his health deteriorates quickly as the family starts to starve. His relationship with Marina is not a sexual one though the reader wonders whether there was a history between the two.
I thought adding the character of Marina into the story was a good choice since she has a more privileged background so we can see the difference in class structure. (Although by rights there shouldn't be one). It's her small amount of money and jewelry that allow the family to keep from starving too soon into the story. I did feel it might become clichéd as in all the great stories of the revolution and aftermath have a tale to tell about a wealthy character that gives the story the added touch of seeing someone born into wealth suffer worse than the ordinary population when hunger rears it's ugly head. She reacts calmly and good-natured to the suspicious tolerance of Anna and complements the family.
Andrei comes into the book about halfway through and the element of the love story doesn't really develop into anything I'd compare with other 'greats.'His suffering with his patients is moving but still Dunmore doesn't make a meal of it. He starts to live with the family and add his body warm when the winter becomes so cold that people huddle together for warmth as well as comfort. Of course there are times when the love story moves the reader, but it's written is such a way that he takes the role of 'everyman' with the addition of being a doctor helping to show yet another facet of this disturbing story.
Helen Dunmore has written a sweeping novel of ordinary people trying to survive in terrible circumstances. However much I have read about different wars it's the combination of cold, starvation and constant bombardment that shows the stoic character of the Russian people. It can be compared with any countries story with people going hungry and bodies blown to pieces. I think its because it's such a senseless part of the war that grips the reader.
The battle for survival cannot fail to touch the reader as we find out what it's like to actually boil leather and wallpaper for the few nutrients left in the residue. Hearing of little Koyla, pinched with cold, his bones sticking out gnawing on a piece of boiled down wallet is gut wrenching. I can't imagine it though I can believe it. There are tiny moments of sacrifice when a child is given a treat of a spoon of jam and makes it last for ages. Everything is scoured for its edible properties and bread, which is rationed to under 100gms per person, is under a slice of normal bread. This is black bread, hard to swallow with mouths bleeding from gum disease and moistened with boiled tea made with weeds.
I cringed when books were ripped apart to make fuel for inefficient stoves and precious furniture hacked to pieces for a few more days' survival. I learnt of the last stages of starvation when a person is just to tired to eat even when there is a little food to spare. I imagined a blizzard of snow so deep you couldn't see a foot in front of you and bodies stored in peoples houses until it was possible to gain enough strength to haul them out like carcasses for burial. How can you fail to be moved beyond belief at a family whose parents or child, grandparent, or lover is dead feet away from you for weeks on end?
You will maybe think, 'I don't want to read another book about war or suffering.' You could be right but the survivors of each and every war need someone to witness their suffering, their grief and their courage in still putting one foot in front of another even when that foot is frozen with cold, to haul a single piece of wood back home. Another few hours of life in a tale of war so useless. What possible gain is there is killing a city of civilians? There are other tales of the Holocaust, other people were senselessly executed and still life goes on, beyond hope, beyond all possibility, we strive for the light and if one person acknowledges that struggle then the world is a kinder place.
So I do recommend you read this book and bear witness to a nation's suffering. Out of the ashes rose a better nation that is still taking tiny steps in our own daily struggle for life and happiness.
My copy of the book is a library copy. You can buy this on Amazon for about £6.38 in paperback in the 2011 Penguin reprint.
* Alexander Pushkin.
Summary: Epic story of love, war and death/life.