Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

Leningrad, September 1941. German forces surround the city, imprisoning those who live there. The besieged city of Leningrad face shells, starvation and the Russian winter.

Interweaving two love affairs in two generations, The Siege draws us deep into the Levin family's struggle to stay alive during this terrible winter. What is it like to be so hungry you simmer your leather manicure case to make soup, so cold you burn first your furniture and then your books? An in spite of everything to resist...

The Siege is a brilliantly imagined novel about war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people's lives. It is also a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.
The main characters in this book are the Levins - Mikhail, a writer who is unfortunately out of favour with the Communist authorities, his daughter Anna who is a talented artist who works as a child care worker and 5 year old Kolya, her brother. Her mother having died during childbirth, Anna is both her brother's sister and substitute mother, and provider for the family.

When war is declared Anna is at the family dacha, working in the family vegetable plot, and just beginning a portrait of the mysterious actress Marina Petrovna. As war goes on, the little family grows as Marina comes to join the Levin's in their apartment. What is her connection to Anna's family? Is Anna right to feel the animosity for Marina that she does? Is it right to accept the gifts of food that Marina has brought with her that will in the end help keep them alive? Eventually, Anna's doctor boyfriend Andrei also moves in. She met him when he comes to tell her that her father had been wounded when working out at the defense line against the Germans who have encircled Leningrad, and who are gradually tightening the screws on an increasingly desperate population.

The aspect of this book that Dunmore did excel at were the pictures that she drew of the population as they went through the various phases of The Siege. The initial disbelief that they were at war, the feeling of still having to be careful about what you say even as you are working at the front lines to provide defense against the oncoming Germans, the repatriation of the children of Leningrad only to find them needing to be repatriated back to Leningrad when it turns out that they were in the way of the advancing Germans. As the war and the siege proceeds, the desperation becomes more intense as each person gets meagre rations of what is loosely called bread, and as the winter progresses, means of keeping warm. Eventually the only way for supplies to get in is over the Road of Life, over the frozen ice of Lake Ladoga. When the siege of Leningrad began there were approximately 3 million people living there...a million people died before the siege was lifted!

Where this novel didn't excel in my opinion, is in the relationships. Reading the back cover I was expecting that the relationships would be given a major focus, and yet they weren't. The book was a quarter of the way through before Anna and Andrei even met, and the relationship between Mikhail and Marina was mainly alluded to through the later part of the book. It was really a relationship from the past, as opposed to one that has been rekindled and explored with the reader.

My question to myself is really....if I had read this book before I read The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons, would I have liked it more than I did. I'm not sure what the answer is. All I can say is that The Siege pails in comparison to The Bronze Horseman, even despite the fact that the focus is different in the two books. TBH is all about the relationships, against the elaborate background of the siege in Leningrad, whereas The Siege seems to be about conditions in Leningrad with a nod to the relationships between the two couples in the book. TBH also seems to be better at giving some idea of the grandeur of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), the sights and sounds if you will. (I have had a desire to go to St Petersburg ever since reading TBH...for now I content myself with cyber tourism!)

I'm afraid it will be a long time before I attempt a book with a similar setting to TBH because there aren't many that will stack up against it! I should have known better, I really should have!

Rating 3/5

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