Novel of the week

The Siege

Helen Dunmore <em>Viking, 304pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0670897183

In the winter of 1941-42, the dead of Leningrad lay hoary in their unheated apartments, or abandoned at the gates of frozen graveyards. Every day, another several thousand starved bodies joined their number. In Hitler's programme of total destruction, aerial bombardment and encirclement would ensure the gradual extinction of life in Leningrad without recourse to a dangerous invasion. Only one supply route was left: the "road of life" over Lake Ladoga, 20 miles to the east. This would eventually save Leningrad and help turn the course of the war; but for weeks, little was getting through, as trucks plunged under the fragile ice. Daily rations dropped to 125 grams of adulterated bread, and whispers of madness and cannibalism echoed down the food queues.

In her well-judged evocation of the siege of Leningrad, Helen Dunmore refuses to wallow in the gore. Instead, she fills her ravaged necropolis with a rich historical and social context. This is a novel about the art of getting by. Its Zhivago and Lara are Andrei, a training medic, and Anna, a nursery teacher. They try to hold together the fragile remains of Anna's family: her brother (who is young enough to be her son) and her sickly father, Mikhail, a writer of average attainment. The dramatic counterpoint is provided by the former actress Marina, a long-time admirer of Mikhail and, like him, a political liability.

Beyond the novel's classically Russian conflict of generations, Dunmore is most interested in exploring the rules of the Soviet habitat: how officialdom could and had to be flouted; how women shouldered the "double burden" of home and work; how the private had to be clawed back from the omnivorous sphere of the public. Specifically, in the case of Anna and Marina, Dunmore shows how vital social bonds could replace natural antipathy. In Soviet history, mutual assistance between citizens was the only refuge from the madcap plans of bureaucrats and "high-up ones"; in Dunmore's book, these survival skills are stretched to their limit.

As Dunmore wrote this novel, she was steeped in the fascinating bottom-up histories of Soviet society that have flourished in recent years. Perhaps inevitably, the research risks crowding out the fiction, with the characters extrapolated too neatly from the historiography to come fully alive, and the dialogues weighed down by an excess of detail. "We are all social historians now," wrote Orlando Figes in his account of the 1917 revolution, A People's Tragedy. But the novelist has to be wary of taking contemporary history's discoveries too literally.

However, with her fine and understated poetic talent, Dunmore captures the siege's sense of estrangement and disorientation in bold, unexpected images. Her Leningrad, filtered through the dizziness of hunger and absolute uncertainty, justifies its explicit derivation from the St Petersburg of Pushkin and Gogol, a city floating on bones and water, transient and macabre. On the city's vast streets, Anna sees snow devils instead of people. In a grim parody of the purposes of the Soviet communal apartment, she finds herself in a bombed block of flats, hunting in the dark for wood, fighting among faceless shadows for her own square metre to destroy. Although Dunmore is indebted to the Russian canon, she brings to bear her own stony, resolutely English and often surprising cadences.

No major Russian novel has emerged from the siege of Leningrad. A foreign author cannot fill this gap, and the Russian reader would find too much in Dunmore's book that is overfamiliar: necessarily, The Siege is an attempt to bridge not just history, but also cultures. As such, it admirably sidesteps all the harmful cliches about the Russian capacity for sacrifice and endurance. But this type of historical fiction runs on grooves that are ultimately limiting for a writer of Dunmore's ability.

Oliver Ready is a former literary editor of the Moscow Times

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the people who make Tony Blair sweat