by Helen Dunmore
This novel bowls along at such a pace that a reader could easily overlook the highly architectural skill with which its foundations are established and the depth and sensibility that give light and shade, meaning and ornament. The setting is a hospital in Leningrad in June 1952. The siege of Leningrad is still recent history and a horrible memory: those terrible months in which the instinct to survive, to put food in one’s mouth, and to sit near a lit stove for a while were all that kept one alive. In a city where dead hands had reached out from the snowdrifts in the streets, and the trams had been frozen to the tracks, ordinary people are at last trying to live a normal life. Helen Dunmore has written her incredibly well-researched and historically correct novel about young professional men and women who now walk with the quick pace of people who eat three meals a day. But the months when relatives lay dead and frozen in the spare room, and life was governed by forays in search of a few sticks of firewood or hours queuing in the bitter cold for half a loaf of bread still brings an occasional clench of fear to the stomach. But the young, still hopeful, Leningraders, with all their lives before them and their intense capacity for endurance and irony, indulge their love of music, poetry and the theatre as far as is possible under Stalin's hideous regime of cruelty and secrecy.
Doctor Andrei Mikhailovich Alekseyev is a paediatric physician with a special interest in juvenile arthritis. He is in his thirties, but had lived and worked at the hospital throughout the months of the siege and the heavy shelling of the city and the hospital, and through Leningrad's heroism, when hundreds of thousands of people had starved or frozen to death. But the warm wind that now blows from the south-west after the long winter has broken and the Germans are gone, has failed in much of its promise.
Andrei thinks of himself as a good ordinary doctor, although he spends longer than is usual with his patients, and his expertise as a diagnostician is known and appreciated by his colleagues. He wants to live out a simple, valuable life with Anna, his wife, and her orphaned brother, Kolya, with whom he has an unusually tolerant and understanding relationship. He wants always to be able to smile as he passes his colleagues in the hospital corridors. He wants to be able to sit by an open window on the first day of spring and enjoy a glass of beer with Anna somewhere in the room behind him. He looks forward to their short holidays at their dacha, where Anna can sow the seeds she has saved in little brown envelopes, each labelled in her beautiful handwriting. He will do repairs to the dacha, and he and Kolya can go fishing and have a drink together.
But there is a child in a private room in the hospital who "carries a disease that destroys ordinary life as fast as the plague corrupts a living body. His father is high up in the Ministry for State Security, and he has one of those names that is spoken only in whispers: Volkov..."
Andrei's and Anna's efforts to avoid coming to the attention of the authorities, their private happiness together, and their care of sixteen-year-old Kolya, are gravely threatened. The Putinesque Volkov represents the violence, secrecy and terror of the Stalin years in the Soviet Union.
THE BETRAYAL is the sequel to THE SEIGE, which was short-listed for the 2001 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2002. But THE BETRAYAL stands on its own as a beautifully written love story. It is a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding book to read, and will no doubt promote considerable reflection and discussion in many a thoughtful book-group.
Read our interview with Helen Dunmore.