The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

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The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: A novel of moving insight into a warm relationship lived against the dramatic backdrop of Leningrad in the repressive period of Stalin’s final purge.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Fig Tree
ISBN: 978-1905490592

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Andrei is a perceptive and deeply conscientious doctor, a young rheumatologist and paediatrician working in a Leningrad hospital just after the terrible siege, during the last days of Stalin’s dictatorship. He is as quick to notice symptoms in his colleagues as in his young patients. When he is approached by Russov, a fellow physician, he registers his confrere’s pervading smell of fear. This is all part of the pathology of the times; life as it is lived under a tyrannical dictatorship. A dictatorship determined to pursue a purge – a vendetta directed against doctors, particularly Jewish doctors. The sweating Russov manages to inveigle Andrei Aleksayev into treating a very sick child, Gorya, the son of Volkhov, who is a tyrannical and high ranking secret police officer. Therapeutic failure, in all probability, could result in vengeance, arrest and devastating effects on Andrei’s loving wife Anna and her young adolescent brother, Kolya.

Andrei, a principled and conscientious clinician agrees to see Gorya even though the case lies outside his own field, which Russov must have known since he had already had the boy’s leg X-rayed. There is a pervading atmosphere of deception. Andrei must call in Brodskaya, a brilliant orthopaedic surgeon and oncologist. She is also Jewish and this is sufficient to incite Volkov, especially as amputation becomes necessary and even this may not be sufficient to halt the rapid spread of cancer.

Anna attempts to maintain normality for her family, despite continual pressures and targets imposed upon her in her own work as a nursery assistant. She struggles to protect her younger brother who is struggling, like herself, to overcome the memories and effects of starvation during the siege, but she's fostering Kolya’s talent as a pianist and composer. There are intense pressures in their little two room flat where the neighbours are ever ready to denounce any sign of anti-social activity. It's a struggle to provide nourishing soups, make dresses and to soften with her feminine creativity Andrei’s life. She also inspires poetic passages in this novel as she encourages him to join her summer walks beside the Neva or visits to restore the family's dacha, which has been vandalised so recently by German soldiers. She is also desperate to conceive the child that she knows Andrei would deeply love them to have.

Memory and the interpenetration of the past with the present are subtexts in this moving story. Anna is powerfully driven to preserve and protect her dissident father’s literary works. She lives, like him, in constant fear of the hammering blows on her door at dawn that signify imminent arrest; an arrest which appears more and more likely as her husband is unable to alleviate the increasingly desperate condition of Volkov’s son.

Throughout this fast paced and heart rending novel, Helen Dunmore gives us a lyrical sense of place. We see Kolya chopping wood, uprooting potatoes and watering little lilacs on the plot next to the dacha. Andrei is inspired by haunting memories of the scented air of the taiga with its smells of resin and the tang of wild berries. Yet against this soulful ambience, and heightened dramatically by the contrast with it, the grim reality is described. Harrowing accounts of the stark and brutal treatment meated out during interrogations in the Lubyanka, the solitary detention of prisoners and their subsequent transit into exile, delineate the harsh realities of Soviet repression. This is a worthy successor to ‘The Siege’ with an evolving and developing insight into the individuals in the earlier book.

Dunmore has effectively used the information that has emerged so recently from archives into The Doctor’s Plot of 1952, brought about by Stalin’s paranoid belief that every Jew was a potential spy, after the previous elimination in 1948, of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. This thorough research supports and strengthens the other salient feature of the novel, which is its compelling characterisation.

Upon finishing the novel, the reader will have encountered the nurturing kindness of Kostya, the elderly doctor and neighbour at the dacha who spreads the integrity of her personal warmth by simple gestures like lighting the iron stove and reassuring Anna with her own skilful infant care. How she contrasts with the cold harridan Sonya Maslova, the wife of the senior consultant that Andrei admires, but who has aligned herself with the repressive regime. Indeed the novel produces other engaging contrasts. Central is that between Kolya, on the verge of manhood and the unfortunate Gorya whose illness precipitates this tragedy and their respective families.

The Betrayal is an impressive novel that shows the enduring courage, which with time, eventually brings the slow melting of a regime of terror. This is reflected on a personal level as Anna presciently notes the damp patches beneath the icicles on the dacha roof that indicate the approach of the Russian spring. These matters remind the reader of the vigilance needed to preserve and protect freedom and associated human values.

I'd like to thank Penguin Books under The Fig Tree imprint for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might like to try The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, or, for a factual look at the period Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War by Rodric Braithwaite.

Booklists.jpg The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore is in the Man Booker Prize 2010.

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Buy The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore at


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