by Helen Dunmore

This was a book group recommendation.  I ordered, read and returned it to the library quite quickly, in order to be ready for the discussion next Thursday.  The two books but Dunmore that I had read previously.  I don’t even recall the first one – I think it had something to do with loss, and I read it not very many years after we lost our son Ben. The second book, which I found more substantial, was The Siege.

I didn’t have high hopes for this novel, either.  I find spy stories difficult.  How are you supposed to keep track of which side anyone is on?  I find I am easily bewildered by plots which involve agents and double-agents and their handlers.

So let me start by saying that this is not a conventional spy thriller. Yes, there is danger (mortal danger, indeed) and some very dark deeds. Yes, there are goodies and baddies.  Luckily for me, it is fairly obvious from early on who the goodies and baddies are, and they don’t switch places. Despite this, there is plenty of tension in the narrative, and some very believable characters.

One character, Giles, is in a hospital bed for nearly all of the time in which the narrative plays out.  We know that he is the real spy, but the author does not give anything away as to how the falsely-accused Simon will get out of the charges against him – if he does.  Simon’s character, his past and present life and that of his wife is very well drawn.  Even Lily’s mother, a German refugee who has retired to Brighton, is a person one can imagine and believe in, despite her relatively minor role in the story.

I am sensitive to anything in fiction which touches on an area of knowledge in which I consider myself to be well-versed if not expert.  Language is one such area, and I had to suspend disbelief when Lily finds she no longer understands German.  Really?  You spent the first eight or nine years of your life in Berlin, with German parents, and move to England with your German mother… I would find it hard enough to believe even that Lily has no accent, let alone that she has forgotten the language completely.

Well… this doesn’t really detract from the story, which is a good one.  Highly recommended – 8 out of 10.



The Siege

by Helen Dunmore

The siege of Leningrad is not an event I had any prior knowledge of.  I had heard about Stalingrad, of course.

This story is of a family in Leningrad during the time of the siege, and the most enduring images are of how they cope with the privations and survive (or not).  Anna Levin is the main protagonist, together with her lover Andrei, her father Mihail, younger brother Kolya, and her father’s lover Marina.  Anna’s mother features in the story but she had died before the narrative begins.

There is not much of a plot, unless it is the historic situation itself and its effect on ordinary lives.  I suppose this is why, writing my review more than three months later, I am finding it hard to remember exactly what happens in this book!  I find that Dunmore’s writing generally is like this – personally touching accounts of relationships help the reader to understand and perhaps identify with the characters, but the story IS those relationships.