Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review - The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

I loved Helen Dunmore’s book, The Siege, which took place during the 900-day siege of Leningrad and revolved around the Levin family – twenty-two year old Anna and her father, a dissident poet, Anna’s young brother, Kolya, Marina, an actress, and a young medical student named Andrei. In fact, I wrote a short story entitled “Leningrad, 1941” as homage to Dunmore and her book (and I hope Dunmore, if she ever sees it, sees it as the homage it’s meant to be). (I love all of Helen Dunmore’s books, by the way.)

Dunmore’s latest book, The Betrayal, is a follow-up to The Siege.

The Betrayal takes place in Leningrad in 1952. Anna, now a nursery school teacher, and Andrei, now a pediatrician, are a happily married couple in their thirties and they’re trying to conceive a much wanted child. Kolya has grown from a sweet six-year-old to a rebellious teenager of sixteen, but he’s a good kid at heart and his rebelliousness is “just normal” for any boy his age.

In The Betrayal, as in The Siege, the city of Leningrad is as much a character as Anna, Andrei, and Kolya. Although their lives are relatively peaceful, the palpable paranoia that characterized the last days of Stalin’s reign dictates almost every move that the characters in this book make. Anna and Andrei go dutifully about their jobs and keep planning for the family they want so much to have. They dream of a new generation who will “only know about hunger from books.” But this quiet domestic dream is interrupted by the harsh reality that books have been banned in Leningrad and writers, artists, and musicians have either fled or been imprisoned or worse. Anna and Kolya bury their father’s samizdat poetry in their dacha’s compost heap, hoping for the day when they can once again read poetry freely.

So, this is life in Stalin’s “cheerful” Leningrad in 1952 – watch your step, do what’s dictated, and you might get to live peacefully, albeit with much intellectual and artistic paucity. On the other hand, you might be arrested and shot, or sent to the gulag, without any warning, on trumped up charges, at the whim of a state official. People fear displeasing one another, they fear their neighbors, they fear standing out, of not being “anonymous or average” enough. Whether they consciously acknowledge it or not, everyone in Leningrad is painfully aware that “anybody can go out of favor in the blink of an eye.” And so it is that one day, that something happens to turn the Andrei’s life, and by extension, Anna’s, around.

Dunmore begins the suspense with the very first sentence: “It's a fresh June morning, with a trace of humidity, but Russov is sweating.” And Russov has several good reasons to sweat, reasons that have nothing at all to do with the weather.

The son of a senior official in the Ministry of State Security, Volkov, has fallen seriously ill, and Russov, who is understandably afraid of being the one to deliver the dire diagnosis, turns the case over to Andrei, who is well known for his compassionate and understanding bedside manner. Andrei is, well, stuck. If Volkov’s son, Gorya, dies, then Andrei will get the blame – no matter what could or what could not – have been done – and Andrei knows it. As his patient’s condition worsens, Andrei thinks: “The blob of sun on the corridor wall wavers. The day shines before him, impossibly ordinary and beautiful. This must be how the dead think of life.” For Volkov is indeed Andrei’s enemy as well as a murderer, a torturer, and an interrogator. But he is also the father of Andrei’s sick patient and Andrei can’t help feeling ambivalent towards him. It is because of Andrei’s sympathy for Volkov as a father that he develops a close relationship with the man, as well as with the young patient, a relationship that is ripe for betrayals of several kinds. All the while Andrei is warning himself “Don’t take risks. Don’t stand out.” Sometimes, however, it’s impossible not to stand out.

As Dunmore builds the suspense, the reader begins to worry about two things: (1) What will happen to Gorya, and how will Volkov take the news? (2) What will happen to Andrei and Anna and Kolya if Gorya’s outcome isn’t what Volkov expects? The pacing of The Betrayal, especially in the first half, is superb. I didn’t want to put the book down, yet at the same time, I didn’t want it to end. As Andrei’s life and career spiral into a Kafkaesque nightmare, one can’t help but think of Stalin’s “Doctor’s Plot,” in which prominent doctors were arrested and accused of conspiring to murder Party leaders. Despite the fact that the “Doctor’s Plot” was a pure fabrication on the government’s part, many doctors were sent to labor camps and subsequently executed. I kept worrying and wondering if Andrei would be one, and if he was, what would then happen to Anna and Kolya?

The Betrayal is a much more strongly plot driven novel than was The Siege. However, Dumore’s plot would not have worked had she not fleshed out her characters so wonderfully. Andrei and Anna and the others felt real to me. I cared about them. I thought about them, even during those times when I wasn’t reading the book.

The Betrayal is also highly atmospheric. The paranoia of Stalin’s regime, the growing menace surrounding Andrei at work, the domestic bliss, the nostalgia Anna and Kolya feel when burying their father’s poetry all come vividly alive. This didn’t surprise me. Dunmore is a wonderful poet as well as a wonderful novelist and her prose, as always, is luminous, crystalline, and at times, sensuous. And I loved Dumore’s images. She’s such a highly evocative author. We can see, in our mind’s eye, just what she wants us to see. Make no mistake, Dunmore is a writer with power, but it’s a quiet sort of power, one that fuses the extraordinary with the ordinary in the best possible way.

If I have any quibble with this beautifully written novel, it’s that Dunmore makes it too easy to sort her characters into the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” People are either morally black or morally white. Andrei, until he comes into contact with Gorya and Volkov, is the very model of the compassionate, ethical doctor. Anna is warm and hardworking and truly loves the children she teaches. And it’s not a spoiler to tell you that even the sullen Kolya comes around eventually. (You know he will anyway.)

Another minor quibble I had was that most of the characters were artists, yet art, itself, plays no part in the book’s plot. Anna draws, Anna and Kolya’s father was a poet, his friend, Marina (if you read The Siege, you’ll know her) was an actress, Kolya plays the piano, Julia (a minor character in The Betrayal) is a dancer, and her husband a filmmaker. Personally, I thought the book would have had a deeper, more lasting meaning had Dunmore delved into why art is important and the fact that art outlives us all, and being an artist herself, I was surprised when she didn’t. The fact that she didn’t, however, didn’t ruin the book for me in any way.

If you’re looking for a historical novel, The Betrayal, which was longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, is going to seem pretty lightweight. This is a book about good, ordinary, everyday people, who get caught up in terrible, extraordinary circumstances, but it’s not One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and it doesn’t pretend to be. This book lacks the overall grimness of that masterpiece and Dunmore focuses more on home and family life. However, if you’re looking for a lovely book, a book peopled with characters you can really become involved with, a book with a heart-revving plot, and a book whose story is beautifully and evocatively told, then The Betrayal, and Dunmore, certainly won’t let you down.


Recommended: Highly, to readers of literary fiction, who love beautiful prose and highly atmospheric novels as well as a wonderful story.