The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

28th Apr 2011


The Siege, which was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Novel Award back in 2000, is the story of one families’ struggle to survive the 1941 siege of Leningrad, when German artillery besieged a city throughout one of the coldest winters in its history, halving its population and leaving lasting scars on the surviving inhabitants.

The Betrayal once again returns to Leningrad, ten years after the siege, and the small family of Anna, Andrei and Anna’s younger brother Kolya, still living in a two-room apartment.

Anna is now 34, scared stiff that her father’s bourgeoisie past that haunts the apartment will be the end of them all. Andrei works as a paediatric doctor in Leningrad hospital and Kolya is a rambunctious piano-obsessed 16-year-old.

Andrei is asked to treat the sick child of a ‘high-up’, Volkov. Any father of a dying child will be angry and look for ways of lashing out, but when that father is in a position of so much power that his word is death, the outcome of the child’s illness affects not just that family, but the whole country.

Nothing is normal in Stalinist Russia. In an atmosphere of fear, trusting no one, knowing that what should be inconsequential feuds with your neighbour could turn into whole families being denounced, Dunmore shows a real family struggling with their own everyday problems.

It is only when a real threat comes into their lives that the reader becomes aware of what a ridiculous and terrible situation not only Anna and Andrei are in, but everyone living through those times.

An incredibly moving and powerful book, not just because of its subject matter, Dunmore writes with such lyrical ease that one follows the characters through their work, the streets of Leningrad, and their own heads flawlessly. So well researched as to be completely natural, this book does not feel like historical fiction, but a modern tense thriller.

By making the story about ordinary people, Dunmore reduces the horror of totalitarianism to a completely accessible and understandable situation that to my modern Western eyes becomes ridiculous, and even more brutal for being based on actual events.

This really happened; people were denounced, and betrayed, and killed on nothing more than a man with too much power’s whim. At the end of the novel I was left wondering what the betrayal was; the betrayal of a friend under torture, or the betrayal of a country to its people.

The Siege was a slow, painful book. Starvation was drawn out, and under the freezing endless Russian skies people died slow lingering deaths. In The Betrayal, everything is a lot quicker, full of panic, and this made the book more of a ‘quick’ read.

The contrast between the two book’s styles markedly shows Dunmore’s talent as a writer, she can bend her craft to suit any situation and create any effect she wants.

I loved this book. Although one would not have to read The Siege to enjoy The Betrayal, which was rightly longlisted (should have been shortlisted) for the Booker Prize last year, I would recommend reading it anyway, just because both of them are as good as each other.

When I saw Dunmore at the Ilkley Literature Festival last year, I hadn’t read The Betrayal. Now it’s in paperback there is one question I wish I’d asked her; is this a trilogy? Because I can’t put Anna and Andrei down. If there is to be a third ‘Leningrad’ book, then it’s a book I can’t wait for.

You can buy The Betrayal in hardback for £14.49, in paperback for £4.53, or for Kindle for £5.99.

Rating: 5/5.  Top Marks. Cannot wax lyrical enough.

Recommended for: For anyone interested in Russian history, if you saw The Way Back (based on the excellent book The Long Walk by Sławomir Rawicz) this winter, or loved A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, or even Random Acts of Heroic Love (though this book is fifty times better, in my opinion), read this book.

Other recommended reading: If you’ve never read any of Dunmore’s work before, read Burning Bright, then read A Spell of Winter, then read The Siege, then read this book!

Jess Haigh