Several years ago, I reviewed Helen Dunmore's novel about the siege of Leningrad, The siege. More recently I discovered that there was now a sequel to it - The betrayal. The siege has long been one of my favourite novels; Dunmore was going to struggle to make The betrayal as good as its predecessor. Could she do it? The answer is a triumphant yes.

A brief spoiler alert here, as it's impossible to write about The betrayal without revealing a lot about The siege, so readers who have read neither look away now, please....

The betrayal takes place a decade after The siege. It's the early 1950's. Andrei and Anna are happily married, Kolya, Anna's baby brother, is now nearly grown-up. Andrei is a successful paediatrician, with a particular interest in juvenile arthritis; and they are all still living in Leningrad - a city which is starting to recover from its desperate wartime history.

But the Soviet Union is a grim place, Stalin still has the country in an iron grip; and terror stalks the streets. Anna knows from the experience of her own father, a writer, who fell foul of the State, that trying to stay below the radar of the MGB (forerunner of the KGB) is often impossible; and Andrei becomes involved when the son of a senior MGB officer becomes ill. As the child becomes sicker, and one of Stalin's last desperate acts is a purge of medics, Andrei is sucked into the abyss of the Lubyanka. Anna finally realises that the city she loves has little love for its people, and her feeling of betrayal is also a reflection of Stalin's own betrayal of his people. Against the betrayal of the State, ordinary Russians like Anna, Andrei, and Kolya all strive to not betray their humanity against huge odds.

The betrayal is every bit as good a novel as The siege. As with The siege, Dunmore brilliantly portrays everyday realities. The struggles of ordinary people to live and have good lives against the backdrop of a despotic state. Perhaps it was because Dunmore's depiction of everyday life is written so well, but never before had it struck me what a contrast life in early 1950's Russia was to life in the West. Black and white against Technicolor.

The greyness and sadness of the background to the novel contrasts sharply with the love of Andrei and Anna's relationship; the friendships that they form with people who risk their lives for them, and the goodness of Andrei's fellow-surgeons, who will lose their lives in the service of a profession that they believe in. While there is goodness, there is also the flip side, and Dunmore shows the lengths to which people are prepared to go to save their own skin. There is an understanding here though of what repression and fear can drive people to do.

Andrei becomes a hero, if a very understated one. The sort of hero, who like many others, emerged from the Gulags.

This is a wonderful novel. Like her earlier novel of Russia in the Second World War, it depicts the history of a complicated country, that has suffered deeply, brilliantly. The Soviet Union paid a huge price for its part in the Second World War, it continued to suffer as hot war turned to cold. This is undoubtedly the best novel I've ever read about the period not written by a Russian.


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