- Penguin Books Ltd
- Publication Date:
- 16 December 2010
- Modern & Contemporary
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"Now it's June, and night is brief as the brush of a wing, only an hour of yellow stars in a sky that never darkens beyond deep, tender blue.No one sleeps. Crowds surge out of cafes and wander the streets, not caring where they go as long as they can lift their faces and drink in the light. It's been dark for so many months."Is it possible to write a beautiful book about hunger, deprivation, the depths of human savagery and the extreme limits of our will to survive? Helen Dunmore has done it with The Siege. It's 1941 and in this giddy with light Leningrad (St. Petersburg) "there's the crumple of artillery, far off, then suddenly not so far off", as the Germans advance. Eventually the city will be sealed off from the outside world, and the siege will begin.Twenty-two year old Anna's mother has died after giving birth to her 5 year old brother Kolya, and after her writer-father Mikhail is injured, it is up to Anna to do all she can to ensure their survival as General Winter and General Hunger advance. New words are flying about: "Strategic defences. Signing up. Immediate danger of invasion. Crisis." Tanks are coming with "the wicked little snouts of their guns swivelling to get you in their sights." The slights and frustrations of thought-oppressing socialism become irrelevant as every day dwindles to one overarching principle: survival.How to find food, how to stay warm, what is essential, and what is not. "Without a ration card, you die for certain. With one, you may die too, but the land of not-dying remains open to you." In this city of desperation, an unlikely romance blossoms between Anna and Andrei, who is studying to become a doctor. He works endless hours at the "hospital" (or what they have retained amidst the bombing), but comes to spend any time he can with Anna, and Kolya, and their father, and an old actress acquaintance of her father's who has found her way into their lives.Helen Dunmore obviously did an exceptional amount of research to bring this story to life. The details are compelling - the mixed feelings as people die and there are fewer mouths to feed, how best to take advantage of a deceased's ration card, the joy of finding a jar of jam, the savagery in claiming pieces of wood from a bombed-out building to burn for warmth. The importance of small kindnesses, and friendship, the sordidness of black marketers extracting every possible item of value from the pockets of the impoverished. The desperate choices that must be made in the interest of life over death.This is an extraordinary book. It relates an episode in history that surely is worthy of our understanding and remembrance. But it is the author's poetic depiction of how such unimaginable exigencies are met by a populace with no choice that lays siege to the heart and requires us to respond fully, without reservation.
[The Siege] is a haunting and seamless blend of history, suffering, despair and hope. Dunmore creates a vivid picture of a nearly unimaginable event in a time and place far removed from that which is familiar to the reader. You are there. She breathes life into her characters even as they are dying. Those who fail and fade are the unfortunate, fragile victims unable to beat the odds. The survivors reached deeper than they ever imagined possible to find their inner mental and physical strength. Everything is a life-defining struggle. Every decision, every action, every unexpected encounter brings life or death.“The sky flares briefly into sunset as Anna trudges on. The snow burns blue and crimson, then the light dies. There are only a few wild-looking streaks of red left in the sky. And over there, that red that burns more fiercely, it must be a fire started by German shells... Because there is no water to put the fire out, [the fires] burn until they die of their own accord. The wind is rising, though it’s not fierce yet. It burns Anna’s face as she makes her way onward, back bent, dragging the heavy sledge. Only a few hundred meters now. Soon she’ll be home… Anna stops. She looks up at the sky, and fine, icy snow patters into her face. Her legs shake. Is it just the snow falling, or is she losing her balance? She clenches the rope. She’s still standing. She won’t fall. She’ll make it to the corner, then to the first lamp post, then the next.”No doubt about it. This book is a solid 5 stars for me. It is beautiful and terrible. Very highly recommended.
Great survival story set during the German seige of Leningrad. Those Russians are tough.
The siege is the first year of the siege of Leningrad, one of the most horrific events in that most horrific of wars. As the siege begins in the autumn of 1941, Leningraders are optimistic. Times will be hard but they are used to hard times. What they didn't expect is that the reserve warehouses of food would be destroyed early on and the city would be left totally on its own. The story follow the lives of five people: Mikhail, an out-of-favor poet; his 22 year old daughter Anna and his five year old son Kolya; Marina, a old lover; and Andrei, the young doctor who saved Mikhail's life and became part of the family.These five people live in, for Leningrad, a spacious two room apartment. Mikhail also has a dasha in the country where his daughter tends a vegetable garden. Anna carefully monitors the family food supply and is optimistic that they will have enough for the winter. She has harvested her produce, swapped for staples like sugar, and is willing to stand in the food lines with the family ration books, for hours if necessary. But everything changes when the food warehouses are bombed. As the weather gets colder, the lines become longer and the rations become less nourishing until the city dwellers are surviving on two slices of bread a day, bread that is mainly sawdust.....just enough to trick the stomach. People fight for a half a cup of sugar and resort to eating the pigeons, pets, rats, and lab animals.The survival of the family is told in tiny triumphs and tragedies, not the epic devastation of the bigger picture. Anna worries if Kolya's loose teeth will fall out and if his adult teeth will grow in. She mourns as they have to burn her father's beloved books for heat in the apartment, but not before they remove the leather bindings to make a broth. She peels the wallpaper off the walls to salvage the flour paste which, the radio reports, has nourishment value. And so it goes until the temperature falls enough to freeze Lake Ladoga and allows trucks to cross the ice with supplies, but not nearly enough supplies for the city. Anna faces another threat to her life as she must get to the stores in 30 degrees below zero weather to pick up food. One slip and she would be too weak to regain her feet. She would freeze to death. Death becomes an alluring release from the pain and hunger. And there is one more danger to the Leningraders. This still is Stalinist USSR and people spy on each other to report the "enemy" to the police. But anyone can become the enemy if he has that extra cup of sugar or piece of wood to burn. Along with fighting hunger, cold, and illness, the people have to worry about any knock on the door. It could easily be the police. This is a powerful novel because it takes a period in history and humanizes it. With over one million dead, the reader, too, worries if the little boy's loose teeth will fall out and if his permanent teeth will ever replace them.
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