In June of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and by early September, its soldiers had encircled Leningrad to force the city into submission by cutting off food and fuel. By the end of September, the city’s fuel supplies had been exhausted, and by November, food rations were cut to one third of the daily amount needed by an adult. The infamous Russian winter had only just begun. This gruesome scenario is the setting for Helen Dunmore’s novel The Siege, which tells the story of Anna and her family during the winter of 1941/42.
Anna’s training as an artist was cut short when her mother died during childbirth and she was forced to become the caretaker of her newborn brother, who is now 5 years old. Her father is a blacklisted writer. When the war begins, the family survives on Anna’s salary as a nursery school assistant and the food she grows on a small plot of land outside of the city. Anna’s father is injured during the citizens’ attempt to put up barriers to fight back the advancing German army, so when the encirclement is complete, it is Anna who must look for food and ensure her family’s survival. They take in Marina, an old friend of Anna’s parents, and Andrei, a doctor who falls in love with Anna upon meeting her.
The time span the book focuses on is brief—most of the story takes place within 3 months—but the suffering described is immense. There are some jumps in time, usually a few weeks, which show how quickly the situation worsened within the city. Anna and her family are better off than many others, having extra food supplies and a stove, but they are soon surviving on a few bites of bread, a few drops of honey, and the books they burn for heat. Dunmore doesn’t shy away from describing in detail the slow decay of health and the physical effects from malnourishment. It is quite harrowing at times and made me want to stock up on canned food.
Anna’s daily battle against starvation and hypothermia is interspersed with short vignettes of other people: the man responsible for feeding (or trying to feed) the citizens of Leningrad, the neighbor whose malnourished baby is dying from the cold, a driver attempting to bring food to the city via the partially frozen Lake Ladoga. It completes the picture of the all-encompassing misery. This is certainly not a happy story, but it is interspersed with small moments of happiness and love that offer hope and are therefore all the more meaningful.
I particularly like the writing in this book. It is beautiful and lyrical. The language is descriptive and rich and often stands in stark contrast to the story. I think readers who enjoyed reading Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites—where the language played an important part in conveying the mood—would enjoy this book as well. Incidentally, both books were shortlisted for the Women’s Price for Fiction (one in 2002, the other in 2014). Dunmore has written a sort-of sequel to The Siege called The Betrayal, which I have added to my TBR pile. I’m looking forward to reading more of Dunmore’s books.