I had to make supper the night I was reading the last few chapters of THE SIEGE. I found myself using large quantities of everything --- rice, butter, pecans, apples, and onions --- perhaps to reassure myself that we had plenty. But I also felt ashamed that we had so much, for this is, essentially, a novel of starvation.
It is the winter of 1941. St. Petersburg has been surrounded by the Nazis, all its supply routes cut off. The city wastes away, excruciatingly. Helen Dunmore writes of its fight for survival with a visceral power that seemed to invade my own body. Yet this is by no means only a horror story, for she finds poetry and a sort of beauty in the bits of warmth and nourishment her characters scrounge up --- a piece of leather boiled to make tea, an encyclopedia that, burned, gives an hour more of heat, two jam jars hoarded in a pair of boots.
Much of the poignancy of THE SIEGE comes from the individuals at its heart: 22-year-old Anna Levin, who has raised her brother, Kolya, now five, since their mother died giving birth to him; her father, Mikhail, a blacklisted writer, and Marina, a blacklisted actress (and former lover of Mikhail) --- two rebels already half-destroyed by Stalinism; and Andrei, a young doctor from Siberia (who, in a wonderful irony, can't understand why being sent there is a punishment). We see them, briefly, in the summer before the war --- a life that, for all its shortages and repression, looks like paradise lost. At the Levins' country house, or dacha, they grow vegetables, read Shakespeare and Pushkin, make sketches, catch fish. When Marina talks about the world situation in terms of Hitler's spreading power, Anna responds silently: "But I've got Kolya to think of...and I've got to find a way of keeping rabbits out of the lettuces, and pickling enough cabbage for the winter, and keeping Dad from getting too depressed, and Kolya's grown out of his shoes again, and he needs vitamins...I simply can't think about everything else on top of that." Aloud she says, "We're at peace. We have a pact with them."
Then the Nazis bomb Kiev, descend on St. Petersburg, and everything changes. This juxtaposition --- the abstractions of politics and war on the one hand, the concrete details of daily life on the other --- underlies the entire book. Andrei, the man Anna loves, is as empirical as she: "He believes in what he can see and touch and smell, what he has held in his own hands. Andrei...did not see 'desperate counter-attacks' or 'valiant resistance'...What he saw was men without weapons, fighting with their bare hands, snatching up spades, pitchforks and the rifles of the dead."
Marina and Andrei join the Levin household for the duration of the siege, and all four adults, in a display of selflessness that goes against the prevailing tide, devote themselves to Kolya, determined that he will not die before he has even had a chance to grow up. The possibility of premature death is never far away: The scene in which Anna sketches her next-door neighbor's dead infant --- she shows him as a round and beautiful newborn --- is among the most touching in the book.
Dunmore alternates effectively between the particular fate of this tender little community and the larger picture, narrated by a more remote and ironic voice. Thus we witness St. Petersburg's bombed-out food warehouses collapsing amid the smell of burned sugar; the supply trucks, targets for Nazi planes, struggling across the frozen lake; the arrival from Moscow of a "food czar," Dmitri Pavlov --- the supreme realist, the man of numbers, the bureaucrat who sets the bread ration so low that he knows people will die. Pavlov is not a villain. He simply has no other choice.
This is a political novel, though not a propagandistic one. The closest Dunmore comes to a symbolic Soviet poster child is the red-haired, tireless factory girl and part-time prostitute Evgenia (who appears conveniently to rescue Anna perhaps one too many times). But THE SIEGE does make something precious and, yes, heroic out of the people who survived the winter of 1941. For American readers born after 1945, who grew up seeing Russia mostly through the lens of the Cold War, this may be a revelation.
THE SIEGE is a departure for Dunmore, whose previous novels have been psychological thrillers for the most part --- atmospheric, sophisticated, twisted stories, but on a far less ambitious scale. Still, there are similarities: her economy of language, her ability to handle savagery without sensationalism, her sense of pace. And there is suspense in this novel --- it keeps us wondering who will live and who will die. Set beside the insistence of hunger, all other things --- love, treachery, art, modesty, beauty --- may seem irrelevant, but they do not go away; they still matter. Survival is not merely an effort to stay alive, but a struggle to remain human.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011