Review

The Siege

by Helen Dunmore

Read an Excerpt



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

The Siege
by Helen Dunmore

  • Publication Date: November 22, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802139582
  • ISBN-13: 9780802139580