Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Betrayal

In The Siege, her novel set during the 900 day siege of Leningrad, Helen Dunmore created a can’t-look-away portrait of a city and people in unimaginable circumstances. Her map of motives, loyalties and escalating struggle is spellbinding.  Now Dunmore has brought us a sequel to that excellent novel, The Betrayal. This new book is the next chapter in the lives of Anna, Andrei and Kolya.

The Betrayal is set ten years after the end of the siege. Anna, the daughter of a dissident writer, and Andrei have married and are raising Anna’s little brother the now teenaged Kolya. Anna works in a daycare, Andrei is a pediatrician and Kolya is sullen. It is spring, Leningrad has been rebuilt and replanted but Stalin is still in power so everyone still lives in fear. During the siege you feared Germans, starvation and freezing to death now you fear your neighbors, your hopes and your government.

The plot in The Betrayal is touched off by a sick boy, Gorya. He is brought into the hospital where Andrei works. The boys’ symptoms coupled with his parentage set off warning signals for the first doctor who examines him and he is palmed off on the dedicated and too politically trusting Andrei. Gorya’s father is a powerful man in the government and party, Volkov.  It is Andrei who has to tell Volkov and his wife the bad news. Gorya has cancer. His leg will need to be amputated but even that extreme is no guarantee that Gorya will recover. So the stage is set of the collapse of the fragile safety Anna’s family has enjoyed.

The research behind The Betrayal is meticulous. Dunmore uses it wisely to escalate the action in the novel and not to hit you over the head with facts. The day to day details of her characters lives, jobs and of Leningrad are all intriguingly laid out within the history of the period to recreate this world of suspicion. Dunmore shows us that her characters have already seen the worst life has to offer and are now willing themselves to believe that this fear filled everyday can be normal.

The one weakness in The Betrayal is the unassailable goodness of Anna and Andrei. It’s not quite believable to see these survivors of the siege as emotionally stable as Dunmore portrays them to be. This makes everything in the story a little less complicated than it could be.

The Betrayal is an intelligent and captivating novel. Helen Dunmore writes with an effortless clarity that belies her research and careful plotting. You certainly do not have to have read The Siege to enjoy this new novel but if you do (Or have!) then the journey of Dunmore’s characters is that much more absorbing!

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