Helen Dunmore is the last person you’d imagine writing a war novel. An award-winning English novelist, she is more partial to heady tales of incest and infanticide in books like A Spell of Winter and Talking to the Dead than she is to jackboots and battalions. But Dunmore’s latest novel, The Siege, feeds on her gothic sensibility to create an unusual WW II story, one that ignores the battlefield for more cloistered, domestic sorts of heroics.
The backdrop to The Siege is the Nazi blockade of Leningrad in the winter of 1941 (possibly responsible for a million deaths). Dunmore’s emphasis on the psychological effects of war brings to mind Tolstoy, but the book takes a much tighter focus than the supersprawl of War and Peace, zooming in on Anna Levin, the daughter of intellectuals who have fallen on hard times: Her writer father has been shunned by the Party, and her mother died in childbirth. An aspiring artist, 22-year-old Anna had to quit school to look after her young brother Kolya and support the family by working at a nursery school. Even before the German invasion, her life is all about duty and practicality: what vegetables to plant in the garden, when to bathe Kolya. She can’t imagine how life could get much harder, but in one day all that changes, and memories of the weeks that preceded the blockade soon take on a blissful retrospective glow.
Almost immediately, the city is convulsed and transformed as panicked residents strip the shops of food and banks shut down. While her genteel, Pushkin-loving father joins a volunteer army, Anna digs trenches alongside hundreds of women, unsuccessfully trying to keep the Germans out of Leningrad. Dunmore brilliantly conveys how adaptable humans are, and how easily Anna’s mind and body switch from her old life to this new, bleak reality where “It’s normal to get up at dawn, and queue for the hastily dug latrines, and not mind if someone else is peeing alongside you. . . . It’s normal to run for cover at the sound of an aircraft. It’s normal to see someone who didn’t move fast enough, sprawled in a ditch.”
In England Dunmore is as well known for her poetry as for her prose (a collection of her verse, Out of the Blue, is forthcoming from Dufour Editions), and she invests both her fiction and verse with a violent intensity that suits the claustrophobic world of The Siege. When portraying cataclysms of such massive scale, writers often attempt to encompass the big picture. But Dunmore does the opposite, her field of vision getting increasingly narrower alongside Anna’s. With winter setting in and Leningrad’s supplies dwindling, each day becomes an almost insurmountable challenge.
Anna’s own domestic situation is complicated by a love affair with Andrei, a young doctor who rescued her father when he was injured by shelling. Although Dunmore’s strongly imagistic prose gives the novel a cinematic feel, this is no cheap shot at melodramatic romance. Even when Anna and Andrei share a bed, they don’t kiss or whisper sweet nothings: “They rest, wadded in their winter coats, like campers bivouacked on an icy mountain.” Fierce emotions are too taxing for bodies maintained by rations of two slices of bread per day, and Anna’s struggle to tamp down her feelings—not just love and fear but also shame at her animalistic hunger to live—is the quiet center of the book.
The Siege excels on two levels, capturing the near annihilation of a young woman and a legendary city. It’s an amazing portrait of Leningrad severed from all sources of energy, stranded with its beautifully useless buildings and helpless inhabitants. As in A Spell of Winter—the creepy, sensuous tale of a brother and sister left to their own devices in an English manor—Dunmore evokes a gothic, fairy-tale quality: “A whole city is going to sleep. A forest of ice is growing around us.” Nature haunts Dunmore’s works much as the moors did Brontë’s, and in The Siege winter is a more dangerous villain than the Nazis, who appear in the book only peripherally.
The book is also an extremely intimate vision of life at its most basic, turning survival into a beat-the-clock thriller. If Anna can stave off her body’s needs just a little longer, she might last the winter. The border between life and death becomes so porous that she constantly guards herself against slippage. “If you let go, and sit down in no man’s land, the snipers of cold and hunger will soon finish you off,” she notes on one of her forays for food, passing by dozens of frosted bodies who paused for a rest and never moved again.
Lydia Millet also strips life down to its simplest components in her strange and lovely new novel, My Happy Life, but that’s about all it has in common with The Siege. Dunmore’s book employs hardship as a backdrop for heroism and endurance; in Millet’s slim tale, deprivation enables transcendence and reverie.
Millet’s narrator is an orphan cruelly mistreated by life who nevertheless regards her meager subsistence as a radiant gift. Writing in a naive voice, the unnamed woman recounts her experiences in foster homes, on the streets, and in the mental ward where she now molders, left behind in a locked cell when the hospital closed some days or weeks before, surviving on toothpaste and shampoo.
Desertion is a leitmotif in the book: Barely visible to the world, the narrator is inessential personnel hovering in the margins of everyone else’s busy lives. She watches human activities with puzzlement and joy, as if observing aliens with charming habits. Since there are so few opportunities for pleasure, though, she often takes comfort in her own mistreatment. For instance, the children in one foster home like to kick, pinch, and squash her in what they call “a meat sandwich,” but after a while, “they would forget the sandwich and nestle, and there was the warmth of them and the salty skin and the milky breath. I have always recalled these touches since they were among the first I knew,” she recalls fondly. “As for the bruises . . . I think they did not know their own strength.”
Millet specializes in deluded characters: Her last novel, George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, was an absurd romp featuring an ex-con with an unhealthy fixation on Bush Senior. My Happy Life is a more subtle and successful attempt to get inside an addled brain. Just as the narrator’s optimism threatens to become cloying, Millet allows darker hints of her consciousness to seep through. In its quirky, ethereal way, My Happy Life suggests that isolation can feed the imagination and nudges at the notion of how little a human being needs to thrive.
Also in This Week’s Books Section:
Miles Marshall Lewis on The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller
Hilary Russ on Another World Is Possible: Conversations in a Time of Terror