The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore, Fig Tree £18.99, 330 pages, FT Bookshop price: £15.19
Why do we think the present is stronger than the past?” asks the narrator of this sequel to Dunmore’s celebrated novel, The Siege. The earlier book couldn’t escape the horror of its own present, with its tale of two sets of lovers and one child struggling to survive in Leningrad in the brutal winter of 1941-1942, when the city was besieged by the German army. Dunmore’s great achievement in that novel was the dramatisation of ordinary people’s experiences of a historically significant event.
In the first book, Anna Levina’s mother died in childbirth, leaving Anna to bring up her small brother Kolya as something like her own son. Meanwhile their father, Mikhail, drank tea and lamented the loss of his writing career after his expulsion from the Writers’ Union. Into this mix came the stylish former actress Marina, Mikhail’s long-time lover. While Anna did deals to get honey, made death-defying trips to the family dacha to pick vegetables and, later, walked every day, starving, to stand in a bread queue, Marina, Mikhail and Kolya shivered back at home. Andrei, a doctor and frequent visitor fell in love with Anna and the members of this makeshift family worked together to survive.
The domestic novel has come in for some bashing over the past few years, particularly when Toby Litt and Ali Smith infamously declared much of women’s writing to be “domestic”, “dulled” and “depressed”. One of the joys of The Siege was that it dramatised a situation in which the domestic could no longer be taken for granted. Excitingly, Dunmore created something like a girls’ own adventure story in which allowing one onion to sprout because of the vitamins in the shoots is a decision made with military precision.
The Betrayal picks up the story of Anna, Andrei and Kolya in 1952, at the rag-end of Stalin’s regime, where the present is often dictated by pasts, true or false. Anna is still a wonderful, if traumatised, housewife, adding wild nettles to a stew because they are full of iron, and never opening one jar of something unless she has another to replace it. She still works in the nursery, which has become an educational institution full of learning outcomes and targets: a new initiative suggests that children’s drawings should be assessed and graded.
Kolya is now 16 and lives only to play the piano, although he is no great musician. Andrei is still at the hospital, specialising in juvenile arthritis. He would much rather spend time talking to his patients and making sure they understand their illness and treatment than publishing research papers and sitting on committees.
When a senior secret police officer, Volkov, brings his son to the hospital with a swollen and painful leg, Andrei is put on his case by a colleague who has not liked the look of the secret X-rays he has already done. The boy takes to Andrei and when it becomes clear that the problem with his leg is not arthritis but cancer, Andrei is kept on the case.
Against Volkov’s wishes, Andrei recommends a Jewish woman to perform the necessary amputation, because she is the most competent surgeon there. When Volkov is unhappy with the results, persecution, imprisonment and torture follow for both doctors. Andrei’s fast-paced, horrific descent into the very heart of Stalinist cruelty is told alongside the continuing story of Anna’s domestic life: she makes a dress for the hospital ball, gets pregnant, and goes regularly to the dacha to weed the vegetables until Andrei’s arrest, when everything begins to crumble.
What seems to be a celebration of ordinary values and honesty can, at times, seem like a celebration of the banal, but it does provoke some interesting questions. Do we fight starvation and repression for the right to be special, or simply to be? Should we fight just for our own families, or for others as well?
This is such a page-turner, and is in places so gruesome, that reading it becomes more visceral than intellectual, and these questions fall away. Still, it remains that any serious novel that uses a repressive regime as a setting must either have something new to say about the regime or must use it to ask something important about life itself. Non-fiction can tell us that good doctors, writers, artists and ordinary people were imprisoned, tortured and killed by Stalin’s forces. A novel can do more. We never know much about what Anna’s father Mikhail wrote, and why it may have been important. Similarly, it is not wholly clear what is being set against Stalin here. Is it simply survival – breeding and eating – or is there more to life than that?
Scarlett Thomas’s novel ‘Our Tragic Universe’ (Canongate) is published in May