Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

While Chris has an interest in reading non-fiction books about the First and Second World War, my interest in this period tends to be confined to historical fiction. So after reading Jackie at farmlanebooks review of The Siege and then going shopping mad (and I mean mad) at thebookpeople.com I very quickly devoured The Siege.

Set during The siege of Leningrad which started towards the end of 1941, the book follows a small family which includes a child as they endure the worst of a Russian winter with no electricity or running water while living on their meagre rations of 250 grams of bread for a worker and 125 grams for a non-worker.

The siege of Leningrad lasted around 2 ½ years and saw the deaths of more than one million civilians from starvation. Very few supplies were able to get into the city and as well as this the civilians also had to put up with being shelled on a daily basis.

There are a couple of love stories within the book but once the worst of the Siege takes hold the only thing on anyone's mind is food and survival. These thoughts occupy the minds of the characters throughout much of the book, there are no thoughts for the future or who they think is winning this battle, the conversations and commentary is focused on the hunger, cold and rumours of where firewood can be found.

Parts of the book contains commentary from Pavlov; the nutritionist who tries over and over to make the figures work and ultimately decides the amount of rations each person can have. Aside from this though we get to see little of the bigger picture. We know the Germans are there because we read about the effects of their shelling but Dunmore does not show the reader the effect on the Germans at the front line. This is not a criticism, I think Dunmore was wise to do this. By focusing on the civilians she is able to allow the reader to really get to know the main characters and to get the reader to care whether they live or survive.

This is not a light subject but the pace of the book and the matter-of-fact way in which this is written makes this quite a fast read which I couldn't put down.

I would highly recommend this.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess


  1. This sounds amazing and amazingly intense!

  2. Jess...This sounds really good; thanks for reminding me, as I did see Jackie's post.

  3. I love this book, Helen Dunmore is such a fantastic writer. If you liked this you should check out some more of her work!

    I can highly recommend A Spell of Winter. If you're looking for more historical fiction then House of Orphans is interesting.

    Also, there's a sequel to The Siege that is out now called The Betrayal, but I haven't read it yet, alas.

  4. Brizmus - its quite an easy read surprisingly but I think thats because of the writers style more than the subject.

    Bibliophile - I hop you enjoy if you do get around to reading it.

    Jenny - I ended up buying 10 Helen Dunmore books at bookpeople.com as they were selling the whole set for £9.99 so Im sure Helen Dunmore will be featured lots on this blog in the future!

  5. I really enjoyed this one too! I'm currently reading its sequel, The Betrayal, set ten years later in Leningrad (and Booker longlisted) and really enjoying it. I'm so glad to have discovered a new (to me) author!

  6. I'm so pleased that you bought this and enjoyed it! I hope that you decide to read The Betrayal as I'm sure you'll like it. I didn't think it was as good as this, but it was still gripping :-)

  7. Jessica: that's awesome! I do hope you enjoy them. I think that'll mean that you'll have read more than I have by the end of them! I still need to read a couple of her short story collections and Zennor in Darkness (as well as The Betrayal).

    The only book of hers that I really haven't liked at all was Counting the Stars, but I think plenty of other people really enjoyed it.

    The Book People do such great deals; I got 10 books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that way. Still haven't finished them all!

  8. nomadreader - I wonder how many other people have been introduced to Dunmore over the booker thing, thats certainly how I have.

    Jackie - Its always abit nearve racking when someone reads a book on your rec (I find it anyway) I must get The Betrayal at some point but Im in no rush since I have all the others to read.

    Jenny - The next one of them Im going to read is Talking to the Dead but when I read the back of them all they all appeal! I also brought the Great Loves collection on that site so now need to stay away from there ;)