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The siege by Helen Dunmore

The siege (original 2001; edition 2002)

by Helen Dunmore, Jilly Bond

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
7293812,849 (3.89)1 / 468
Title:The siege
Authors:Helen Dunmore
Other authors:Jilly Bond
Info:Isis Publishing, 2002.
Collections:Read pre-2009

Work details

The Siege by Helen Dunmore (2001)

  1. 30
    The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (gennyt)
    gennyt: Both are stories of cities under siege, and the struggles of ordinary people for survival in dangerous and extreme conditions.
  2. 20
    The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (Imprinted)
  3. 00
    Through the Burning Steppe: A Wartime Memoir by Elena Kozhina (Imprinted)
  4. 00
    The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad by Harrison E. Salisbury (Imprinted)
  5. 00
    The Conductor by Sarah Quigley (avatiakh)
  6. 00
    The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine (GoST)
    GoST: Another historical novel about starvation and survival during the Siege of Leningrad.

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English (36)  Norwegian (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (38)
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
In some ways Dunmore’s extended prose is appropriate for a book about the drawn-out siege of Leningrad but personally I found it all overwrought in style. As well as going into what seems to me to be trivial detail at times, she also overloads her sentences. The following, for example, describes a childhood recollection of Andrei when he’d go camping with his mother: ‘When he lay on his back, he could feel the earth moving under him as the wind blew faint clouds over the clean blue face of the sky’.

I think this would, perhaps, appeal much more to female readers than males because it often has that sort of fanciful writing. Early on, when Anna visits Marina in her dacha, Dunmore describes her entering the property: ‘The creak of the gate flushes out a pair of woodpigeons from the birch-scrub. The birds go up, clattering their wings, and then settle on a branch way above Anna’s head. Prr-coo, they say, prr-coo, as they smooth away the noise she has made’.

What I think I find least convincing in this book is the characterisation while the relationships between the characters are anodyne and undeveloped. Andrei is no more than a Siberian-loving and Anna-loving hard-working doctor and the big mystery built up by Dunmore about the mystery of why Vera had disliked Marina is finally exposed as the one long guessed by he reader – an extra-marital affair, one explained in three different versions by Marina, each as insipid as the other – they take the reader nowhere.

Dunmore, then, has tackled what was undoubtedly an appalling event in Russian history but she has managed to make it seem all too pedestrian. ( )
  evening | Jun 23, 2015 |
This was a heavy novel. It was full of beautiful writing, and there were glimpses of hope, but I don't think categorizing it as anything but bleak would be an honest assessment. The siege of Leningrad was a horrifying situation, and Dunmore doesn't try to glamorize or gloss over the plight of the Russians struggling to stay alive. As the book progresses, and their hold on life becomes more tenuous, the novel itself seems to slow down - to become less grounded in real events and more dreamlike. Anna's struggle to trek just a few blocks in the snow takes pages, mirroring for the reader how exhausting and terrifying it would feel to her. I sense this book could be a tough sell for some readers, but I was really drawn to its intensity.

Like the best historical fiction, it served to make me more interested in reading accounts of the time in which it took place. I don't know that I've ever read fiction (or nonfiction) set during this particular part of WWII, and it made me definitely interested to find more books about this siege. ( )
  NeedMoreShelves | Feb 28, 2015 |
The German siege over the winter of 1941 on Leningrad that resulted in the death of six hundred thousand people has been personalised and encapsulated by Helen Dunmore in her book, The Siege. Giving her readers an intimate look at the suffering, deprivation and starvation that the citizens of Leningrad endured by telling the smaller story of Anna and her family.

This family struggles to stay alive in their small apartment, mostly being held together by twenty-two year old Anna. Caring for her wounded father, taking in an old family friend and watching over her younger brother as he grows thinner every day, Anna forges for food and fuel under brutal conditions. Such a life could easily wipe the humanity from one, but this poignant, touching story also shows that love is a necessary ingredient to life, as Anna meets and develops a bond with a young doctor.

Truly a touching story that shows the cruelty and horror of war along with the passionate unyielding will to survive that makes Anna a heroine to remember. The Siege is a beautifully written story with vivid descriptions and the knowledge that this is all based on historical fact make the book all the more compelling. ( )
2 vote DeltaQueen50 | May 28, 2014 |
Sometimes, our reading choices benefit from external guidance, which is one of the reasons I'm a member of a book group. Recently, one of my group recommended that I read Helen Dumore's 'The Siege'. I wasn't convinced - my reading pleasures do not usually stretch to books described by the Sunday Telegraph as 'a Tolstoyan epic of love and war' - so I began reading the book out of a vague sense of obligation; I ended it with a sense of gratitude - to the author, who made what could have been Yet Another War Story beautiful and genuinely moving, and to the acquaintance who insisted I would enjoy it.

What's it about?

In September 1941, Hitler ordered the German forces to surround Leningrad and have it 'wiped from the face of the earth'. This chilling directive opens a powerful story that focuses primarily on the survival of a few individuals living in Leningrad at the time of the bombardment. Forced to burn books to avoid frostbite and boil shoe-leather to stave off starvation, Dunmore's characters struggle not just to exist, but to want to continue existing.

What's it like?

Utterly convincing. Brave Anna forms the novel's emotional core as she fights to keep herself, her young brother, Kolya, and increasingly vulnerable father, Mikhail, from dying. She is soon joined in this endeavour by a handsome young doctor, Andrei, and her father's old flame, Marina.

I was initially concerned that the ensuing romance arcs would obscure what I considered to be the 'true' focus of the novel - the brutal nature of life in Leningrad at this time - but in fact Dunmore deftly balances these threads, revealing how hunger and fierce cold can conspire to crush even the most loving souls.

Using Anna as a central focus for the novel works well. She is a naturally sympathetic character, a hard worker whose life has already been touched by sadness. Since her mother's death in childbirth, she has sacrificed her education and been bringing up her brother as her own child. Her ambivalence towards her father - whose arty nature seems to preclude him taking an active interest in the upbringing of his son - and his former lover is understandable, as is her admirable determination to shield Kolya from the worst of the war.

Although Anna's family remain the core focus, other stories are woven in as their lives cross Anna's: the tough worker who becomes a prostitute while her elderly mother sleeps in the next room; the pretty young thing who is killed by a chance fall of bricks; the young mother struggling to feed a newborn baby while her husband is away trying to save the Motherland. In this way, Dunmore creates a rich tapestry of experiences within the dying city. It is a largely female tapestry; most of the men are away fighting, and Anna primarily interacts with other women. I didn't find this limiting - I think there are already plenty of male perspectives on warfare - but some readers may feel Dunmore could have made more use of male experiences.

Though most of the novel is written in the third person, with a close focus on a particular character's experiences, Dunmore often uses direct address to powerful effect:

'What are days? You wake hours before it's light, from hunger. Hunger has burrowed deep into your stomach and is eating away at you. You turn, moaning, trying to dislodge it. You taste the foulness of your breath.'
Once again, this evocation of wider, shared experience helps the story feel convincing and genuinely moving. I am very rarely moved to tears by anything in a book or film, but one episode in 'The Siege' did make me cry. Despite the necessarily sad nature of much of the plot and narration, the blurb claims that this novel is also 'a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival'. So it is - for those who survive.

Unlike many historical novelists, Dunmore is able to incorporate much of the relevant historical background seamlessly into the narrative. Where more detail is required, the reader is treated to an account of Pavlov's number crunching. A government minister tasked with managing Leningraders' rations, Pavlov is aware that while he is writing history, history is also writing him. People will die or live according to his decisions, which once again helps the reader to appreciate the broader picture Anna's family are starving within.

Final thoughts

'The Siege' is a well-written, genuinely moving and thoroughly convincing account of life in Leningrad during the bombardment. I liked that the book focuses on civilians and their war effort, rather than following the men in the trenches. I also liked the fact that love doesn't conquer all - though it does help. I plan to read Dunmore's follow-up, 'The Betrayal', to find out what happens to the surviving characters, but this is because I enjoyed Dunmore's written style and easy embedding of history into the story, rather than feeling a 'need to know'; this novel has a perfectly satisfactory ending and feels quite self-contained. There is no prologue but there is a kind of epilogue at the end of the final chapter; regardless, at a relatively short 291 pages the book felt just the right length.

I am not enough of an expert on the period Dunmore is writing about to comment in her historical accuracy, but the selected bibliography suggests that the book has been well-researched, and she notes on her website that the book grew out of her interest in the time and place, rather than the other way around, so I expect it is a fairly accurate account of what life was like for Leningraders at this time.

I wasn't surprised to learn that Dunmore is also a poet (and an essayist and a writer of children's fiction). Her writing has an almost lyrical edge at times, in spite of the harshness of the world she depicts. This helps to make the story a pleasure to read.

I borrowed this from my local library but it is well-worth the £8.99 RRP and would certainly withstand re-reading once a suitable period of time has passed: the quality of the writing and the emotional response the novel draws from the reader means that a vague, lingering memory of the plot need not prevent readers from savouring the novel afresh.


Read this if:

- you find it interesting to read about periods in history, especially Russian or World War 2 history, in a fictionalised format;
- you enjoy reading accounts of humanity under pressure and how people rise to the challenges inherent in starvation, freezing weather and the psychological pressure of the constant threat of death;
- you enjoy well-written novels which tell convincing stories about sympathetic characters.

Avoid this if:

- you prefer to read fiction that focuses on different aspects of warfare - e.g. the the fighting - or on a different period of history;
- you enjoy romances where love is all-powerful and all-conquering, regardless of circumstances. ( )
1 vote brokenangelkisses | May 19, 2014 |
A wonderful book. ( )
  oldstick | Jan 8, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
The Siege is an agonising read, but also a numbing one. The novel, which narrates the first and worst winter of a siege that lasted from 1941 until 1944, animates the senses in order to feel them shutting down.
added by kake | editThe Guardian, John Mullan (Feb 5, 2011)
[L]anguage that is elegantly, starkly beautiful. . . quieter and more powerful than her earlier work.
In limpid and careful prose, with an intermittently choric narrator, Dunmore presents a community in travail.
added by kake | editThe Independent (Jun 16, 2001)
Admirers of Dunmore's thrillers such as Talking to the Dead and With Your Crooked Heart may be disappointed by her decision to wrestle with the raw materials of history. Nevertheless, it is the lasting achievement of The Siege convincingly to narrate a horrifying war story from the point of view of the hearth, not the trenches.
added by kake | editThe Observer, Michael Williams (Jun 10, 2001)
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Re: The future of Leningrad

...The Fuehrer has decided to have Leningrad wiped from the face of the earth.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802139582, Paperback)

The Siege is one of those novels that is as redemptive as it is shattering, and they don't come much more shattering than this. The year is 1941, and the good people of Leningrad are squeezed between fear of Stalin's secret police and rumors that the Germans, despite the incredulity of military experts, are rapidly advancing on their great city. When the inevitable happens, 22-year-old Anna, an artist and the sole support for her young brother, invalid father, and the latter's former mistress, learns to survive the devastation and mass starvation that the siege brings. In the worst days of winter, Anna falls in love with a doctor, Andrei, who returns her passion, creating an oasis of emotional privacy within the hell of war. The Siege is expertly anchored in sometimes unbearable details of the assault on Leningrad; the book's sense of place and the author's great skill at pumping immediacy into the cold facts is something to behold. But this is, finally, a novel about extremes of experience, from rampant cruelty to the redemptive power of one person's love. --Tom Keogh

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:53 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Leningrad, September 1941: German forces surround the city, imprisoning those who live there. The besieged people of Leningrad face shells, starvation and the Russian winter.

(summary from another edition)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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