There’s a stereotype I used to believe about literary fiction, that the genre was full of beautiful imagery and dislikeable characters. I’ve since realised that this is rubbish, Marcel Aymé proved you could make someone love a character in a story as short as 30 pages. However The Siege by Helen Dunmore perfectly illustrates what I used to think literature was.
I picked up this book because the Siege of Leningrad interests me and I kept hearing good things about it and the sequel. I probably would have been more impressed if I had not already read The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. After that epic, The Siege fell a little flat despite being the more literary of the two.
The story centres on the Levin family in the days leading to and during the siege of 1941 with the focus being on the daughter of the family, Anna, as she strives to keep her family going. Her five year old brother Kolya, her vague intellectual father, Mikhail and his old friend the actress Marina Petrovna make up the household in Leningrad as they huddle in one flat with a dwindling supply of food. Lastly there is the love interest Andrei, a medical student from Siberia.
The story starts from perspective of Anna but unfolds to involve all the characters. The emerging diary entries of her father caused a beautiful affect of two worlds pressed close together but never touching. We know what Anna feels and we know what her father feels but their outlook on each other is distant and blindly groping. The atmosphere of a city driven mad by cold and hunger is successfully illustrated by Dunmore and one of the greatest achievements of the book for me.
I thought Anna was too perfect and passive at first but as the harder selfish layers of her character showed through when Leningrad was plunged into famine l actually began to respect her more. None of the characters made a very strong impression on me. The love story between Anna and Andrei was so inconsequential to me that sometimes I forgot he was in the flat at all. Although the romance failed to touch me Dunmore writes some beautiful passages that of Anna’s budding feelings
I want to shut my eyes with him. I want to see black velvet in front of us, and prickly stars. I don’t want to make tea for him or take care of him. I want to dance in the dark with him. Can he tell I want that?
There were some lovely macabre elements to Dunmore’s writing like her grisly folktale about General Hunger and General Winter, a story that takes on more and more importance as the story progresses and overshadow everything else in the story even the thread of human interest. I did enjoy the book as I was reading it, Dunmore is a powerful writer, but I don’t believe I’ll ever read it again. I didn’t love the characters enough for that.