Although limited in scope this novel is a good insight into life inside besieged Leningrad
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 joins 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.
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About the reviewer
Fiona Thompson (FionaT)
I live in the UK but have a second home in Slovenia where I hope soon to move to on a permanent basis. I love to travel and I write for a number of sites about my travel experiences. … more
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Called "elegantly, starkly beautiful" by The New York Times Book Review, The Siege is Helen Dunmore's masterpiece. Her canvas is monumental -- the Nazis' 1941 winter siege on Leningrad that killed six hundred thousand -- but her focus is heartrendingly intimate. One family, the Levins, fights to stay alive in their small apartment, held together by the unlikely courage and resourcefulness of twenty-two-year-old Anna. Though she dreams of an artist's life, she must instead forage for food in the ever more desperate city and watch her little brother grow cruelly thin. Their father, a blacklisted writer who once advocated a robust life of the mind, withers in spirit and body. At such brutal times everything is tested. And yet Dunmore's inspiring story shows that even then, the triumph of the human heart is that love need not fall away. "The novel's imaginative richness," writes The Washington Post, "lies in this implicit question: In dire physical circumstances, is it possible to have an inner life? The answer