on October 5, 2010
WARNING: This review will contain spoilers for The Siege, the first book in this series. If you haven't already, I encourage you to read my review of The Siege.
The Betrayal, a sequel to The Siege, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2002, is on this year's Booker Prize longlist.
The Betrayal picks up in Leningrad in 1952. Anna and Andrei are happily married and raising her younger brother Kolya as if he were their own. Andrei is a successful doctor, but his values are put to the test when the child of a senior secret police officer comes in for treatment and the prognosis isn't good.
I really enjoyed The Siege, and it was wonderful to reconnect with these characters so quickly. In many ways, though, The Betrayal doesn't read like a sequel. Yes, the characters are familiar, and the setting is still Leningrad, but life during the siege and life under Stalin are radically different. Also different in this novel is the narration. Anna's point of view drove the narrative of The Siege, but Andrei took center stage for much of The Betrayal. Dunmore plays with the themes of paranoia, trust and perception beautifully:
"We should panic," she says. "People are destroyed because they don't panic in time. They think it won't happen to them." (p. 38)
Historical fiction can easily seem too grim or too romanticized. Helen Dunmore manages to convey the atrocities of the place and time while still believing in the power of the human spirit to persevere or perish:
They believed in the next world, and no wonder, when this one had given them nothing. But we believed in making this world a better place. (p. 322)
Anna's too young yet to know that the past is just as real as the present, even though you have to pretend that it isn't, and carry on towards the future. (p. 323)
Perhaps my favorite aspect of this novel was Dunmore's ability to take one story, and a one family, to tell the story of Leningrad itself:
Our city is like that, too, think Anna. We love it, but it doesn't love us. We're like children who cling to the skirts of a beautiful, preoccupied mother. (p. 261)
Despite being quite different from The Siege, I thoroughly enjoyed The Betrayal. The tale was more familiar to me, and thus less shocking, but I loved following these characters through a different period in their lives. The combination of these two novels provides a nice context for modern Russian history.
The Betrayal is a worthy follow-up to The Siege and will appeal to fans of historical fiction and literary fiction.
on September 6, 2010
The Betrayal is nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. As I write this, we are a day away from the short list announcement where The Betrayal appears to have a 50-50 chance.
Did I like it? Yes, it was tense, moved very well and dealt with a good doctor who just wants to save lives but exists in a totalitarian regime where you need to play by the rules. The rules are that The Party rules and you need to be subservient to The Party and especially to its highest officials.
The good doctor in question is Andrei who is sneakily asked by a colleague to examine a child. It is sneaky because the child is the son of high ranking official. Since the boy is sick, the doctor that takes the case will be in great jeopardy. Andrei knows all this and still chooses to get to know the boy and to treat him. This is what Andrei believes he must do as a doctor.
Unfortunately, in the time and place he lives, this puts him and his family in great jeopardy. Despite everyone's advice he does what he believes to be the right thing. As the situation deteriorates, Andrei's life gets worse and worse.
This is a very tense book and has a very appealing lead character. It captures the paranoia of Stalinist Russia very well. It is a quick and enjoyable read. This is a sequel to a book called The Siege which I have not read. It stands well on its own though I cannot comment on whether my enjoyment would have been enhanced by reading The Siege.
On the downside, the book doesn't really add a different perspective to the time and place that it is about. It's a simple story in a complex time and place. I recommend it but don't think it has the substance to win the Booker Award.
on January 2, 2016
Because I’ve recently read Helen Dunmore’s latest book, Exposure, set in England in the middle of the Cold War, and found it exceptional, I decided to read her last book, The Betrayal. This, I am reminded, follows on from a book she wrote which was published in 2001, The Siege, set in Leningrad during the Second World War. The central characters in that book, or some of them, are central in this, which has jumped forward some years to 1952. Russia is locked down in a fearful totalitarian society. This is the last year of Stalin’s life, though of course no one knows that till he dies.
Dunmore captures superbly how rigidly and implacably totalitarian systems – of any political or ideological thinking, work. When the received isms must be adhered to, come what may, systems protect their own, and individuals within the systems are aware that who is in favour today may not be in favour tomorrow. People self-censure, self-police, and inform on each other readily, because not to inform on infringements of thought, speak, deed risks the person choosing not to shop their relative or neighbour being accused of complicity and sabotage.
So, entering into the lives of the central characters, Andrei, a compassionate paediatrician, his wife Anna, an artist, now nursery nurse, and Anna’s younger brother Kolya, is to inhabit a landscape far more nerve-wracking and chilling than a mere plot-driven thriller, because life, in that time and place, really was like that.
When the son of a senior member of the MGB, the Ministry for State Security, the Secret Police, falls ill, and the suspicion is that the illness is terminal, none of the senior careerist doctor’s want anything to do with his case, because if treatment fails, and the boy dies, his powerful father is likely to accuse the medical team of deliberate acts of sabotage and subversion.
And, unlikely and fictional as that might sound to those of us who live in democracies, this merely mirrors a real purge and punishment which was happening at the time, the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’, a primarily Anti-Semitic drive against Jewish doctors in the last year of Stalin’s life. A couple of political high ups had died, one from alcohol abuse, one from heart attack. A complete conspiracy to murder prominent political figures was constructed, and a series of confessions, naming of conspirators, and the like, fabricated. It was only after Stalin’s death and slowly seeping movement away from such extreme totalitarianism that the fabrication was admitted.
The Betrayal follows the consequences of Andrei taking the compassionate act of treating the young boy because of the duty of care he owes to all his patients. Despite the correctness of treatment protocols, incurable conditions are unlikely to be cured. A grieving parent who is also a powerful, autocratic figure upholding a monolithic system by constant surveillance of thought crimes and worse, is likely to find the need to blame ‘someone’ an easier option than to accept the randomness of terminal illness happening to their child
Dunmore’s plot, characters, background and atmosphere, not to mention her writing itself, are all superb
on November 23, 2011
This is a sequel, but it is not "The Siege II". So if you're looking for another tale of survival and starvation, you need to read another book on the same subject.
This novel has moved on from the 90-day seige and takes us into a country stuggling under the new regime. While the first book centred on Anna, this one belongs to Andrei - and his is a worthwhile story.
Not quite as good as the first novel, but a good novel in its own right.
on October 20, 2011
The second of Dunmore's historical novels set in 1950's Russia following the siege of Leningrad, "The Betrayal" is effectively a stand-alone work. Although her prequel "The Siege" might fill in further character development and background, this work effectively stands on its own. A thread of paranoia runs throughout the storyline of this well researched novel as a compassionate doctor is blamed for the death of a Russian official's son from alleged incompetency, and the supporting characters suffer on several levels as bureaucratic forces take control. A story of hope and despair, this is a fine account with a glimmer of optimism.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
on June 2, 2014
If ever there were inducements to read more about Russia's frightful history, it is Helen Dunmore's The Betrayal and its earlier companion novel The Siege. Her writing epitomises everything an author could be. It is so easy to empathise with her characters' courage, determination and dreams, prevail in the most daunting and terrifying of political social and physical environments. I can't wait to read Dunmore's other writings. She is fast becoming a personal literary treasure.
on November 29, 2014
The most important thing to know is that this did not seem to have been written as a page turner. There are little incidents and character moments, like a description of an elderly woman on a bus w/o drops her basket of apples, and other passengers help her. She never comes up again. It's just a moment showing a taste of life and the decency of average people under a totalitarian regime. Once I got used to that, I liked it better.
on March 22, 2015
Helen Dunmore returns to the family whose sufferings in war torn Leningrad she captured so movingly in "The Siege". With exceptional scholarship and writing of the highest order she recreates the fragile hopes of a return at last to a normal life, shattered by the paranoia of an ageing and ailing Stalin and his menacing henchmen. What do good men and good women do when their every move brings new threats from jealous, frightened, devious or unscrupulous neighbours and co-workers eager to turn someone else's misfortune or naïveté to their advantage? This is a story that rings true in every personal, political and historical detail. Read it.
on October 2, 2013
This book is definitely a page turner. Once you have started it, it is not easy to put it down.
Helen Dunmore has clearly done a lot of historical research. While one finds it difficult to accept that individual human beings could be treated in such an awful way by the state, we are more aware today than ever before that this in fact can happen. While the book is set in Stalinist Russia, one only has to remember what is currently happening in Syria, what has happened to individuals like Ai Wei Wei in China ( brought home to audiences in the west by Howard Brenton's play, The Arrest of Ai Weiwei) and many other places, that state control can often mean a denial of human rights.
The reader can only have praise for Andrei, the main character, as he puts his principles as a medical professional, above any other considerations. The book, therefore, reminds us that individuals who are firm believers in some values, or their professions, face many dilemmas and have to make rough decisions which could be detrimental to themselves and their families.
While there is a lot of description of medical conditions and decisions, Helen Dunmore has managed to make it easy to follow for the reader, especially the one without any medical knowledge, and has not fallen into the trap, for instance of Ian McEwan in his novel Saturday, where he went overboard with medical details.
The characters in The Betrayal are drawn very clearly. Helen Dunmore writes very well, in particular able to describe their feelings, moods, thoughts, in such a way that the characters come live for the reader.
Somehow, however, the story with many tensions seems to come to an end without any twist in the tail, as one might have expected. One does not look for a very dramatic ending, but with the challenges described in the book, the end seemed slightly an anti-climax.
I ended my review of Dunmore's THE SIEGE, set in Leningrad during the German blockade of 1941-43, with the words "the survivors have rediscovered their humanity." In this sequel, however, set ten years further on, the loss of humanity has returned, at least for large sections of the population. Now it is not warfare or famine that they fear, but the tentacles of the Soviet apparatus run by an increasingly paranoid Stalin, where you must remain professionally invisible to keep your job, and denounce your own husband or wife to avoid the destruction of your entire family. The authorities have even suppressed all memorials of the Siege, as ill befitting the image of Soviet action in the Great Patriotic War, so even the sense of shared heroism that lighted Dunmore's earlier novel is replaced here by a timorous despair.
[ALERT: I cannot go further in reviewing this book without revealing the names of some of the survivors from the earlier novel. Do not read on if you want that to be a surprise.]
Besides its overall grayness, this later novel suffers from Dunmore's handling of the sequel problem: too much of it is looking back. She has three main survivors from the earlier book: Andrei, a young pediatrician; Anna, his wife; and Kolya, Anna's much younger brother, who lives with them almost as a son. I found myself yearning for the chapters involving Andrei, because he is someone bursting with moral courage who has very much retained his humanity, and he is involved in a very real problem. Early in the book, he is asked to look into the case of Gorya Volkov, son of the feared head of the Leningrad security apparatus. The pediatrician strikes up an immediate bond with his patient (and even to a certain extent with the father -- a feature which I greatly liked), but when things go wrong he immediately finds himself targeted as a scapegoat. All the scenes with Andrei and Volkov are electrifying, but they occupy less than a third of the book.
Unfortunately, Dunmore is unable to build similar interest around Anna, the protagonist of the previous book. She also is a person of integrity, but in this novel she is forced into a reactive role: keeping the apartment running, fending off intrusive neighbors, looking after Kolya, and hoping to get pregnant. While Andrei looks forward by necessity, she spends most of the time looking back at events familiar to those who have read the earlier novel -- especially the death of her father, a dissident writer whose papers remain in her safekeeping. Even her work in a day-care center, whose gung-ho director is engaged in a research project on "learning outcomes" for preschoolers, is little more than a semi-comic interlude.
One Amazon reviewer criticized THE SIEGE as depending too much on outside events as opposed to the moral choices of the characters. I did not entirely agree then, but I do here. Anna is a moral person, but she has few significant choices to make. Andrei's choices are courageous ones, but they all come early in the book. Halfway through, after events turn against him, he too becomes a mere victim of outside forces; the story is no longer what he does, but what is done to him. Dunmore describes the atrocious conditions well enough, but no better than many earlier authors. A book whose occasional dullness had at least been seasoned with true drama earlier, became a real challenge to keep reading well before the end.