Helen Dunmore is better known for her intense, claustrophobic novels of family life in England, but I think THE SIEGE is definitely her masterpiece. I am so happy I read this book, though, as other reviewers have already pointed out, it is both harrowing and depressing.
THE SIEGE takes place in Leningrad during the winter of 1941, and opens before Russia has become involved in the war, and, despite the fact that the book centers on one very ordinary family, this is in no way a family novel. THE SIEGE is the story of Anna Levin, her father (who is a writer), her young brother, Kolya, her father's mistress, Marina and Anna's own lover Andrei. Although the love stories between Marina and Anna's father and Anna and Andrei are definitely subplots, there really isn't a lot of romance in this bleak book and one should not go looking for that in the pages of THE SIEGE. Dunmore gives great priority to the siege, itself, and, in doing so, she has chosen not to develop her characters and their interwoven relationships to the fullest.
When I first began reading the book, I was a little shocked at how the residents of Leningrad simply ignored the "political disappearances" that were so clearly murders. But it didn't take long to realize that they were ignoring them because the had to ignore them, because to do more would only put their own lives in jeopardy.
As time advances, however, so do the Nazis and Leningrad is finally surrounded and cut off from the outside world. Despite the book's romantic subplots, this is primarily a novel of survival. How do people survive, not just day by day, but hour by hour, when their own existence is dependent on a ration of one slice of bread per day? What happens to these people before they starve to death? How are the dynamics of family and love changed due to the enormous stresses they must face? Hunger, cold, deprivation...these are the subjects explored by Dunmore in THE SIEGE and, even more than the characters, these grim subjects are the stars of this book.
I think Dunmore made an excellent choice when she relegated her romantic subplots to the very back burner. People who can barely put one foot in front of the other are not going to be overly concerned with finding love. While DOCTOR ZHIVAGO remains my all time favorite film, I do realize the romance between Yuri and Lara was a bit unrealistic and that both characters looked remarkably well-fed, despite the lack of anything even remotely nourishing.
Food, of course, is something of primary importance in THE SIEGE and Dunmore's descriptions of food, even in this harrowing book, are almost poetic and lyrical. There are red cabbages, cucumbers, jam, lime trees, cloudberries and warm, dark honey. Food is described in such great detail in this book, not because of its bounty, but because of its dearth and thus, its importance. Food, in THE SIEGE, has long since ceased to be a source of enjoyment and has become, instead, the very means by which one can live...for at least one more day.
Juxtaposed against the lyrical passages centering on food, are the harrowing passages that detail the siege itself: The claustrophobia of being in a city cut off from the rest of the world; the lack of hygiene; the advancing German army; the lack of heat; the seemingly endless snowstorms; the corpses frozen in the ice; and, of course, the hunger, the starvation, the fight just to survive. Not to live, "life" was given up long ago; survival is all the residents of Leningrad can think of, or hope for, now. These are people whose lives are shattered beyond belief; these are people who have, literally, nothing.
THE SIEGE is one of the darkest books I've ever read, but, at the same time, it's one of the most beautiful. Dunmore's prose is perfect; it's harrowing where it should be harrowing and poetic where it should be poetic. It's not too spare and it's never overblown. It's perfect.
I would recommend this book to anyone who loves extremely well-written, literary fiction and who can tolerate a book of unrelieved bleakness and power.