Beautiful and rightfully bleak. 4/5 stars.
The blurb: Leningrad, September 1941. Hitler orders the German forces to surround the city at the start of the most dangerous, desperate winter in its history. For two pairs of lovers – Anna and Andrei, Anna’s novelist father and banned actress Marina – the siege becomes a battle for survival. They will soon discover what it is like to be so hungry you boil shoe leather to make soup, so cold you burn furniture and books. But this is not just a struggle to exist, it is also a fight to keep the spark of hope alive…
The Siege is a brilliantly imagined novel of war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people’s lives, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.
I got a copy of this from the library. It sat on the table and stared at me for four weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to progress past the opening page on which there is a reproduction of the order from Nazi High Command for Leningrad (St Petersburg) to be wiped off the face of the earth. I had a feeling reading this one would take strength, and I was right.
Obviously, any book which attempts to faithfully recreate an insider’s experience of the siege of Leningrad isn’t going to be sunshine and rainbows. But just how traumatic reading this book is, is testament to the tremendous skill of the writer. The descriptions of piercing cold and gnawing hunger are so powerful you find yourself turning the heating up and going in search of biscuits.
Dunmore’s research must have been painstaking to recreate the Leningrad of the time so effectively. And I imagine reading first-hand survivor accounts of the conditions inside the city couldn’t have been easy.
The author also deserves praise for bringing such an important story to my attention because, apart from some vague recollections of hearing it mentioned, it’s part of WWII history which managed to slip past me. I don’t think we covered this in school, even though 1.5 million people died in Leningrad in the winter of 1941.
Overall: powerful and moving, with brilliant descriptions and complex characters. Although, as you’d expect, this is also a bleak read only to be approached if you think you can stomach it.
Claire Huston / Art and Soul