Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Siege, by Helen Dunmore

The SiegeThe Siege begins with springtime, with the release from winter’s grip, with the melting of the snows and the budding of new life. It begins with Anna planting her vegetable garden, and tending the children at the nursery where she works. Such new growth stands in stark contrast with the winter that has just ended, and in even starker contrast with the winter that is to come: for this is Leningrad, 1941, and the Germans are on their way; Leningrad is a marked city.

Helen Dunmore builds this story beautifully. From the fresh spring we travel with her and her characters through the summer, to autumn and the approach of war; from the early preparations for the winter stores to the preparations for siege, barricading the city, battening down the hatches, and all that that brings. As winter takes hold, she conjures an ice-filled world of desperation. This is a world where gold jewellery must be bartered for a single loaf of bread, where your mother’s precious dressing table must be sawn up for fuel, where the simple process of walking up the stairs is an act of endurance.

The Siege is harsh but feels incredibly real. One of the things that I am often struck with in war images - whether on the page or on film - is how cities and lives become transformed. How a person can go from leading an everyday life, going to work, eating, drinking, to this other life, this life of horror and hardship; how a city goes from a place of living to a place of bombardment and destruction. In her subtle way, Dumnore shows us how this happens. She writes:

“Sector by sector, building by building, barricades are going up. Pillboxes, bunkers and machine-gun nests are being set up, trenches are being dug, and key defensive positions identified. A new map of the city is emerging, which has nothing to do with homes, shops, schools, parks or restaurants. It is do with patrols at every crossroads, with mined bridges, with sight-lines, steel tank barriers, pillboxes, and the artillery positions which everyone calls Voroshilov hotels...
“Even the trees in the parks have become something else. Now they are defensive positions, behind which a man can crouch, watching, alert, his cheek pressed against bark which is carved with lovers’ initials.” (pg. 136)

I am reminded of an image from the HBO series Band of Brothers: the soldiers are marching through a bombed out German town, the buildings are ruins, shells, and yet there are people there, living there, trying to eek out some form of survival amid this utter destruction. It’s shocking an incredulous all at once. My maternal grandfather fought in the first world war, and something my mum always says he told her was that, “You can get used to anything.” It is scary how destruction and hunger can become the norm, and this is essentially what happens to Dunmore’s characters in The Siege. They are desperate, they are scraping their lives together, boiling leather bookbindings to get whatever nutrients they can out of them, and yet they maintain their dignity whilst also fighting for their own individual survival - which means, ultimately, putting yourself above all others, and your little brother above yourself.

Two other things really stood out for me whilst reading The Seige. Firstly Anna’s father’s tale of General Hunger and General Winter. This is a story told fairly early on in the book, supposedly recounting another war, but it serves as a clever warning for what is to come, the shadow on the horizon of the warm springtime.

Second is Dunmore’s way of switching point of view. Most of the book is written in third person, telling Anna’s story, looking over her shoulder. But, on occasion, there are snippets of second person point of view, which is quite unusual and generally regarded as a risky way of writing. This is because second person uses ‘you’, basically addressing the reader directly. Done poorly, this can be alienating, but Dunmore uses the technique carefully and extremely effectively - here, it enables us to become part of the story, to be in the city, to feel the cold, to more fully participate in the story and understand what her characters are going through.

“If you read one book this year, it should be The Siege,” my cousin told me. I had heard the book praised before, but this particular advise is what made me finally pick it up and read it. I’m glad I listened - for anyone who wants to read real quality writing with a digestible story, The Siege should absolutely be on your list.

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