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By John Andrews
Helen Dunmore has published eleven novels including The Siege, which was short listed for the 2001 Whitbread Novel of the Year award. She is also a poet, children’s novelist and short-story writer. Her novel The Siege tells the story of the siege of Leningrad, ordered by Hitler in September 1941 at the start of that city’s most dangerous, desperate winter in its history.
Dunmore’s latest novel, The Betrayal, published by Penguin in 2010, stays with Leningrad and takes us fast-forward to 1952 with Stalin and his State Security police intruding into everyone’s lives.
Anna, a nursery school teacher, who managed somehow to survive the siege, and Andrei, a young hospital doctor, are forging a life together in the post-war wreckage that is Leningrad. Their happiness, however, is precarious, like that of millions of Russians, who must stay clear and out of sight of Stalin’s merciless Ministry of State Security. Andrei is asked to treat the seriously ill child of a senior secret police officer, and both he and Anna know that this could easily backfire if things go wrong, but there is no way out and treatment begins.
Dunmore chillingly evokes the atmosphere of Soviet suspicion, where whispered rumours and petty grievances grow into lies and eventual denunciation. This is a compelling portrait of a family struggling to preserve its humanity in the face of impossible odds; a hugely atmospheric story of love and survival, and a brilliant evocation of the murderous paranoia of the last years of Stalin’s Russia.
What impresses me most about Dunmore’s novels is the extent of her detailed research. For example, in The Betrayal, she lists an impressive bibliography of over thirty books, sources and articles which she has drawn upon in writing her story.
Read this book and cherish even more our freedom in this green and pleasant land.
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