Review: The Siege by Helen Dunmore

by Stephen Tall on February 23, 2017

dunmore siegeThe Siege, Helen Dunmore

This is the eleventh book chosen from my #40booksby40 list. The question ‘The Siege’ asks is blunt and raw: what happens when you starve a city for 2½ years? Leningrad found out, from 1941 to 1944 — an astonishing 872 days — when the Germans laid siege to it.

We see what happens through the eyes of one disjointed family, the Levins: Anna, the nursery worker, and sister/mother to 5 year-old Kolya; their father, Mikhail, a writer dangerously unable and unwilling to toe the Stalinist line; and Marina Petrovna, an old flame of Mikhail’s impelled by necessity into the family bosom.

And we witness their gradual, inevitable, harrowing descent into bare survival, as the vicious pincer of Hitler and a long winter makes their lives unimaginably unendurable. What stands out most are the domestic details: the cups of tea made out of plain water with a dash of salt or sugar; cooking Kolya’s papier-mache fort to release a few essential calories; those who freeze to death waiting in the bread-queue.

If it sounds grim, it is. It was. Yet there is, of course, hope. Anna finds love. She also discovers unknown resilience and how mis-shapen families bind each other together. Gripping, in every sense.