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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from hearing the author speak at a local event some years ago, but the book drew me in to the story because of it's historical content.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.
How many times have you said you're starving when really you're just a little hungry. I can recall my mother telling me, when I would announce as a child that I was "famished", that I had no idea what starving meant. In her novel "The Siege", Helen Dunmore describes what it is to be truly hungry and the worry that comes from not knowing how you will feed your family.
Set during the first winter of the siege of Leningrad, the story centres on Anna, a nursery assistant who lives in a small apartment with her father and her five year old brother, Kolya. With their mother dead and their out of favour playwright father unable to earn a living, Anna is not only mother to Kolya but the breadwinner for the whole family. When news comes of the rapid advance of the Germans, Anna and her father are in the country. By the time they get back to the city most of the available food has gone from the shops as people rushed out to stockpile. The nursery where Anna works is closed down as many mothers make the difficult decision to evacuate their children but Anna and her father decide to keep Kolya with them in the city. When Marina, an old friend of her father's, arrives asking if she may stay with the family, Anna is able to join other young women in a makeshift camp on the edge of the city, digging the trenches that, it is hoped, will slow down the Germans if they make it that far. But when the temperature drops and winter really sets in the ground becomes too hard to dig and Anna returns to the city to find her once cheerful little brother pale and hollow-cheeked while her father's health is deteriorating rapidly. Outside the dead are piling up on the street, hidden under snowdrifts; the ground is too hard to bury them but even if it wasn't, who would have the strength? Will Anna and her family be able to survive the winter?
Numerous novels have been written about the siege of Leningrad but this one stands out for two reasons. One is that it covers only the first few months, that terrible first winter in which so many people perished, often while out on the streets in search of food. The other is that it looks at the siege from a social rather than military point of view, in particular from a woman's perspective. With so much already written on the military aspect of the siege, Helen Dunmore's novel looks instead at those trapped in the city, for whom life was as fragile as those fighting on the front. Approached from this angle the injustice of it all is amplified as the very people being defended are dying anyway as they freeze and starve.
For all the suffering depicted here, it's not a sentimental novel but neither does it necessarily portray the women being of great fortitude. In fact, there are as many scheming and manipulative women (usually caused by sheer desperation of course) as there are virtuous, selfless women in this story. I liked this detail; it made me think of British wartime spivs peddling silk stockings and other black market goods but this time it was women selling goods at inflated prices and this time the stakes were much higher. Old newsreels often show British women smiling cheerfully on munitions factory production lines or waving gaily to the camera as they gathered crops on the farms but "The Siege" paints a more harrowing picture of life for the women of Leningrad during World War Two.
Helen Dunmore's portrayal of the characters is as stark as the besieged city. The female characters are more developed than the male ones but, even so, the reader learns very little about Anna and Marina outside of the particular time frame the story covers. Whether this was deliberate is debatable but it struck me that keeping the characters more distant emphasised the fact that virtually everyone was in the same situation. To have focussed more on the family as individuals outside of the greater population might have made their suffering greater than anyone else's. The truth was that as the trickle of supplies getting into the city ground to a standstill, it was not only the working classes that suffered: everyone went hungry.
"The Siege" is a story that doesn't really go anywhere: it only covers the first few months of the siege which actually lasted 872 days. As a novel it's not really 'entertaining', it's far too studious and noble to be described as such. I liked the family and cared what happened to them but it was the social history that really grabbed my interest. I was fascinated to read how people supplemented dusty bread by boiling scraps of leather to make something vaguely like a soup and later resorted to scraping paper from the walls of their homes, when the government announced on the radio that some nutrients could be obtained from the paste. I'd say that the lack of a more personal look at the family and the background of the characters make this a book for readers who are really interested in the period. There's not really any aspect of the story that stands apart from the events of the siege. There is a reference to some history between Marina and Anna's father but this isn't really explored in any depth, partly because Anna feels a loyalty to her dead mother and partly because the demands of present day life make the past insignificant.
"The Siege" is a novel about the siege of Leningrad and how it affected people in general rather than what happened to one family during that time. I'd recommend "The Siege" to those people especially interested in this period of history, but not more widely, even as a piece of historical fiction, because it offers such a narrow insight into the period.
Helen Dunmore is a prolific author of historical novels, a genre I usually prefer to stay well away from. However I was particularly interested in this one because of where it is set, Leningrad in 1941, one of the last historical sieges where a whole city was supposed to be wiped off the map by the Germans. I was dubious at first, thinking this would be a less than pleasurable reading experience, but I was wrong.
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.
Leningrad, September 1941. German tanks surround the city, imprisoning those who live there. The besieged people of Leningrad face shells, starvation, and the Russian winter. Interweaving two love affairs in two generations, THE SIEGE draws us deep into the Levin's family struggle to stay alive during this terrible winter.