Helen Dunmore

After my great love of The Post-Office Girl, I found myself reading another book about people who have, with great difficulty, survived a war and now must adapt to post-war life. This book is very different from Stefan Zweig’s novel for many reasons, not only that it’s a modern novel (published last year) and that it takes place in Russia under Stalin’s rule, in the aftermath of the second world war. However, I did notice the same themes, the weariness that the war has left behind and the difficulties in creating a life now that the immediate threat to survival has disappeared.

I had already read and enjoyed a few books by Helen Dunmore, A Spell of Winter (a gothic story about incest between a brother and sister), Zennor in Darkness (set in a village in Cornwall during the first world war), and The Siege, which is about a family attempting to survive the war in Leningrad during a terrible winter. This book really managed to convey the endless cold and hunger, and the way in which the family’s world shrank within the walls of their apartment. The Betrayal is the sequel to The Siege and follows Anna and Andrei, the young couple from the earlier novel, as they face a dilemma: Andrei, a respected doctor, is asked to treat the seriously ill child of a senior party official. This could be extremely dangerous for Andrei and he is faced with the question of whether to attempt to escape, to flee Leningrad, or to agree to become involved in treating the child.

I have to say that I didn’t like The Betrayal quite as much as The Siege, but there were still things I enjoyed about it and during the second half of the book I became completely involved in the plot and finished the book very quickly. The novel definitely created suspense and tension, and a sense of how it would have been to live in a world of paranoia and persecution, how the characters felt spied upon and could not speak their mind freely, even to friends. I think one problem I had with the novel was that the way people thought and spoke seemed a little too modern; it’s difficult to express why I felt this but I didn’t feel as if I was being taken into a new world. I suppose this modern feeling could be a way of drawing the reader in, making us care about the characters and even showing some parallels between Soviet Russia and the UK! (for example, the way bureaucracy, official language and the setting of targets have affected people’s lives). But I found this actually distanced me from the novel somewhat, and I also felt that the characters were a little too similar to eachother and often seemed to speak with the same voice, one which I just didn’t feel particularly drawn to. Anna and Andrei were sympathetic but somehow seemed too ordinary. It was as if the story could have been about anybody – and maybe that was the point, but I felt this made me like the book, rather than love it.

I think what I do like about Helen Dunmore’s writing is her lyricism and the way in which she can express strong emotion. I preferred the sections of the novel that concentrated on Anna’s thoughts, her feelings towards her family, and the way that the past, and her experiences in the siege, kept breaking through into her new life. I liked Anna’s memories of her relationship with her father, a writer who had fallen out of favour under Lenin’s regime, and his lover Marina. One idea that was expressed repeatedly was that the past (our personal past and the more historical past) is as real as the present and still has a great deal of power over our lives. ‘Anna believes that it’s not a question of remembering or forgetting. The past is alive. It claims what is its own.’ I like the way the novel gives the sensation of time passing, the seasons flowing on and spring coming again, despite what happens in human life. The city of Leningrad is also indifferent to the characters, ‘a beautiful, preoccupied mother’, beloved by them but with its own life that continues despite their individual problems. I like the way Helen Dunmore places individual lives within a strong feeling of the wide scope of history and the natural world. The end of the book merges fact and fiction, and the novel’s story of individual lives with the official recorded version of history, in a way I found really moving.