this compelling novel, set during the Siege of Leningrad, military operations
and the German enemy remain largely in the background as the focus is upon
the tiny apartment where the central character, Anna, struggles to support
herself and her family. In an interview with The Observer, Helen
Dunmore said of the book: ‘It’s not an overview of the siege,
it’s an inner view.’
The people of Leningrad are forced to retreat into their rooms and into themselves as the familiar, bustling world of the city swiftly shuts down around them. They are not exceptional people but they are caught up in exceptional circumstances, and the reader is invited to identify with them, sharing their suffering. The effects of starvation and cold experienced by the characters are acute, and, subsequently, the sensual pleasures of a brief moment of heat from a stove or of the tasting of a spoonful of precious cloudberry jam take on a powerful intensity. It is in such domestic moments that the drama lies rather than on the battlefields.
Much of Helen’s previous fiction had a thriller or mystery element, with a plot leading to some form of revelation or
resolution. In this novel the structure is less conventional. Helen has said: ‘I think the plot is more to do with patterns between people in this novel. There are repetitions, there are changes, people are realigning themselves all the way.’
At the centre of The Siege is Anna, a woman who resists social pressures and preserves her personal integrity. Other heroines created by Helen share this determination. People who are part of the political system, like Anna’s neighbour, are suspicious of her because she is ‘the daughter of a member of the intelligentsia, and a dodgy one at that’, but she is also looked down upon by her father because she is employed as a lowly nursery assistant. Helen admires Anna because she has made a life for herself, despite the restrictions imposed on her, and she resists being patronised by others.
Anna’s mother Vera died following the birth of her son, Kolya, but her influence remains. Vera came from a generation of women, Helen says, who were ‘intensely idealistic’, eager to take their place in the wider world. In his diary, her husband Mikhail writes: ‘To hear Vera talking about healthcare in the community was like watching the sun come up.’ In some ways she could be warm and tender – she ‘glowed with life’ at work for ‘there she had her team, her responsibilities, her patients’ – but she was not an easy mother for Anna: ‘She praised Anna for what she did, rather than for what she was’. Vera had wanted to free Anna through education, but with her death ‘instead of freeing her daughter, she put a child into her arms’. Later, during the siege, Anna can say to herself: ‘Maybe I haven’t fulfilled my potential, Mammy, but watch how I’ll keep us alive’ and Kolya comes to symbolise the possibility of hope and of a future. Anna is of a different generation to her mother: Helen describes her as being ‘very vital and tough’ having grown up in the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 30s with all its hardships.
Leningrad, equal to Paris or Venice in its architectural
splendours and cultural activity, is both a setting and a
character within the book. Before the German assault it is described as:
Floating, lyrical, miraculous Petersburg, made out of nothing by a Tsar who wanted everything and didn’t care what it cost. Peter’s window on Europe, through which light shines. Here’s beauty built on bones, classical façades that cradled revolution, summers that lie in the cup of winter.
Leningrad was a city that considered itself superior to the rest of the Soviet Union, more outward looking and westernised. Its people ‘dealt in finished products. They are high up in the chain that leads from raw earth to luxury goods’. The outsider, Anna’s lover Andrei, has always felt equivocal about the city, seeing the political dangers that lie there. Nostalgic for his home region of Siberia he says:
Siberia’s more than a place, it’s a spirit which can’t be translated anywhere else. People talk more openly there. They’re not so scared… Siberia becomes the only place where you can really breathe.
He says of Leningraders: ‘Wherever they are, no matter how beautiful it is, no matter how happy they are, they’re always pining to be back.’ When the effects of the siege begin to be felt, the glory and tradition of the city counts as nothing as the supplies run out and the support system collapses:
The entire city is a stone island now, and has got to depend upon its own resources. But you can’t eat stone, or the magical prospect of the Neva at dawn. Nor can you derive calories from apartment buildings, armaments factories, icons or munition works. The history of Leningrad, Petrograd, St Petersburg may stretch back to the moment Peter put his iron mark on the marshes of the Neva, but you can’t eat history.
Helen Dunmore’s own interest in Russian history began at school and developed during the two years she taught in Finland. Among her favourite writers are the poet Osip
Mandelstam and Leo Tolstoy. She has said:
There are a number of things that Russia has been
responsible for in the twentieth century which we have much to be grateful for, in particular that role of absorbing the huge energy of the German advance and drawing it back, without which I think we would very probably have had a fascist Europe; this is downplayed now. The suffering has been very great. The Siege is about a certain indomitability which I admire.
She enjoys the research process behind her books, although only a small part of what she learns will be directly referred to. Much of the sense and feel of Leningrad came from walking around the city. She believes that bringing together fact and fiction in a novel does not work if too many explanations are given or if the characters appear to be conscious of how things are going to turn out or which events will prove, with hindsight, to be particularly significant.
Read, also, the section on The Siege from the readers’ guide as a PDF and Word document.
|Moving dead body through city street|
|Women defence workers|
|Collecting water in winter|