Helen Dunmore's "The Siege", a book review
Helen Dunmore's novel "The Siege" takes place in Leningrad, over the winter of 1941. It's like watching a history documentary, with a story woven through. Dunmore took her research very seriously here, and the novel is the stronger for it. I enjoyed reading it, and I learnt much about World War II that I didn't know. It felt strange to put so much trust in a novelist, but her background facts, and even some of the details, were borne out by further research myself.
In the lead-up to the harsh, Eastern European winter that gripped the city, its occupants tried to stave off the German advancement. Dunmore's main character, the young woman Anna, takes all the vegetables she can back to the family's apartment in Leningrad. She destroys what she cannot carry because German soldiers are close behind, and she does not want to feed the advancing army.
What follows, as winter sets in, is an unimaginably cruel cutting off of the citizens of Leningrad. Anna's father, her younger brother, and a couple of family friends do what they can to survive. Bread, rationed to slices and half slices, becomes increasingly doctored with sawdust as the authorities desperately try to keep feeding people.
Ironically, as the weather gets even colder, and people are literally frozen to death in their own fuel-deprived homes, some light appears. Trucks are able to make it over the frozen river Neva ... if they are lucky. Those that go through the ice take with them precious cargos of food. So precious in fact, what soggy supplies are possible to retrieve, are brought up and back into some of the only supplies that are getting through the German lines.
Thousands starved to death in Leningrad. Anna's family does not escape its casualties, but those who do survive, along with her doctor boyfriend, go on to become a smaller tighter family. They are through the worst, and in the spring, public gardens are dug up to plant cabbages. The siege continued, but the worst is over.
In a follow-up book, The Betrayal, Dunmore explores the history and her characters' lives past that first winter. But it has a lot to live up to after the intensity of the first. Thoroughly recommended for those who like their novels with real substance.