By Helen Dunmore
Completed January 8, 2011
It’s one thing to be cold; it’s another to be cold and hungry. But that’s exactly the conditions Leningrad residents faced during the German siege of their city during World War II. And it’s the setting for Helen Dunmore’s riveting book, The Siege.
Told mostly through the perspective of 23-year-old Anna, The Siege accounts the daily battle for survival undertaken by Anna and her family. Anna’s father, wounded in battle, is slowly dying while her five-year-old brother battles hunger and asthma. Anna never lets risk stop her from finding food or wood for her family. She stands in line in the Leningrad winter for a few slices of bread, gets robbed for her firewood and sneaks into the countryside to dig up her family’s vegetable garden. Yes, Anna was brave, but more than that, she was intent on survival. It’s this hope that carries her family through the winter.
Woven through Anna’s narrative are side stories that eluminate the hunger and cold. Dunmore tells the story of “Food Czar” Pavlov, the Party Leader in charge of Leningrad’s food allocation. Pavlov obsessively recalculates the numbers to determine how he was going to feed some many people with such little food. Through his numbers, the readers learn what Pavlov comes to realize: there isn’t enough food to keep all of Leningrad alive. Dunmore also references little Tanya Savicheva, who wrote notes about the starvation and death of each family member, until only she was left. There’s also Eugenvia, a red-headed woman who kept herself alive with her cunning and broad curves. It’s these little sidebars that add to Anna’s story of cold, hunger and survival.
Despite the bleak subject matter, The Siege is a book one appreciates, eagerly turning the pages to learn how Anna and her family fare. Shortlisted for The Orange Prize in 2002, it’s no wonder The Siege has been widely acclaimed by critics and readers. If you like to read books about the survival of the human spirit, then The Siege is a must-read book for you. ( )