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Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore's 2001 novel, The Siege, describes the struggle for survival of Russians during the Siege Of Leningrad, an ordeal that lasted 872 days and cost well over six hundred thousand lives through starvation. Principal among the characters of this novel are young sweethearts Andrei and Anna, and her baby brother, Kolya.

The author's latest novel, The Betrayal, finds the characters in the Leningrad of 1952. The couple are now married; Andrei is a hospital paediatrician and Anna an assistant in a children's nursery. Kolya - now that his and Anna's parents are dead - is with Anna and Andrei, a surrogate son for the childless couple. Their circumstances are reasonably comfortable, but their quite life and happiness is threatened by the arrival at the hospital of the dangerously ill ten-year-old son of a high official of the Soviet security apparatus.

Leningrad - and the city is a powerful presence in the book - has recovered from the tragedy of war, but memory of the desperate privations of the siege are still vivid. However, now the greatest danger to ordinary Russians is not a lack of food and fuel, but the arbitrary and often vicious exercise of power by the state bureaucracy. The show trials and other purges murderous are history, but Stalin's paranoid antisemitism finds one final victim. Thus starts the irradication of the baseless, so-called Doctors' Plot.

The Betrayal is an account of ordinary, decent people trying to survive in the particular circumstances of this state which, while laying claim to scientific rigour, is in fact debased, violent and self-serving. Among the many betrayals, large and small, that these circumstances generate, one at least is the betrayal of the efforts and beliefs - however misguided - of those who thought they were working towards a new and better world.

I admit that I have a high regard for those writers, for example Dostoevsky, Orwell, Greene, Coetzee and of course Solzhenitsyn among many others, who illuminate the survival of private individuals in the face of public political forces. Despite the great attention that is paid nowadays by both the news media and fiction to the dangers of crime, political events and the operations of the world's states are I think the greatest inhibition and danger to our happiness and way of life. Helen Dunmore's book tackles this big subject.

Despite the terrible times the novel describes, The Betrayal is ultimately a hopeful book. The efforts, of these individuals at least, to preserve and regenerate outwit the forces of violence and stupidity.

Click here to read an interview in the Scotsman with Helen Dunmore.

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