I just finished reading the novel, “The betrayal”. I had not heard of the author, Helen Dunmore, or the book, when I picked it up randomly at Landmark. That is something I do once in a while and is the real pleasure of book browsing. Of course, most of the time you play safe, and buy known authors or go looking out for books which have been well reviewed.
The back cover said that the protagonist was a doctor and it was set in Leningrad. Leningrad or St Petersburg, as was its original name, to me evokes these wonderful memories of the early scenes from the Tolstoy novel “War and Peace” – which were captured so captivatingly in the 1956 movie starring Audrey Hepburn. It is also the only Russian city I have visited, as part of a Scandinavian cruise I took a couple of years ago. That along with the medical angle may have stirred my interest!!
This story is set in the post-war Leningrad of Stalin! A simple tale of a dedicated young doctor who has survived the siege of Leningrad and the consequences he and his family have to face after he is forced to be involved in the management of as child who has an incurable cancer. The child is the son of one of the big shots in the secret police.
So little is written about the Russian side of World War II and even less of the post-war years in that country. Lenigrad, was a large city of about 3 million people when it was laid under siege by the Germans and between 18th January 1943 to 27th January 1944, a total of 872 days, the city refused to surrender. This was one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history and at least 641,000 people are believed to have died (some estimates put this figure closer to 800,000) The people suffered from severe starvation and in the extreme winter of 1941–1942, when temperatures touched −30 °C, there were reports of cannibalism. Hungry gangs attacked and ate defenceless people.Citizens received daily rations of 125gm of bread, of which 50–60% consisted of sawdust and other inedible admixtures.
The book reminds you of these horrors, through the reflections of the main characters, the doctor, his wife and her young brother who is like a son to them. The progroms of Stalin’s era and how they affected the lives of ordinary people is simply recounted without resorting to melodrama or gory descriptions. The resolve and the consequent instincts for survival is the theme and the story ends on an optimistic note, with the radio announcing the death of Stalin.
Overall, a simple story, well told. I did not regret my random selection at all. And, now I have learnt that Dunmore has written a number of books, amongst which ‘Zenner in Darkness’ and ‘The Siege’ have been well acclaimed. Certainly, an author who i shall look out for!