British author Helen Dunmore's new novel, The Betrayal, takes place in 1952 Leningrad, as the city is still recovering from war. This sequel to her Whitbread and Orange Prize-nominated The Siege, a story of a family's struggle within Hitler's occupation, has just been long-listed for Britain's Man Booker Prize. While it's recommended that you read that novel at some point, it's not necessary for the understanding and appreciation of The Betrayal. That's because Dunmore does an amazing job of evoking not only events but also atmosphere and tone, through memories, contrasts between the occupied city and the present one, precious items and letters left behind and a portrayal of the fears and hopes of the people who survived.
The Betrayal is the story of Anna and Andrei, who together are raising Kolya, Anna's younger brother, often mistaken for their son. Andrei is a doctor; Anna a nursery-school teacher. Kolya is safely ensconced in school and excels in music. They have a dacha, a country cottage, where they grow vegetables and flowers, a scarcity during the siege. Their lives are relatively calm and pleasant, but there are some cracks in the pretty picture. Kolya's loud piano serenades are annoying to their landlords and they worry about causing too much undo attention. Anna has so far been unable to become pregnant, which becomes a large elephant in the room for the couple as they both give in to silent worry, resentment and sadness about their lack. Anna is wholly unable to let go of the past and her memories of the hunger, poverty and restricted rights they endured during the occupation lead her to be overcautious.
Dunmore creatively uses memories to recap the story of the siege and keep alive its main characters: Anna's father and mother and her father's mistress, Marina. She is tormented by the deaths of both her parents, her mother while giving birth to Kolya and her father during the siege, after months in hiding because of his subversive writing about the government. She is in awe of Marina, but also annoyed with her for betraying her mother and taking her father so much out of their lives. She has kept his diaries, painstakingly building a hiding place in the piano, which she reveals to no one, not even Andrei. She strives to understand her father's life and his choices, in part so she can understand and appreciate her own. She is looking for his guidance, though he is long gone.
Andrei and Anna's veneer of calm and happiness begins to splinter when Andrei is chosen to care for the young son of a senior secret police officer under Stalin. The boy becomes fatally ill with cancer. Through a series of escalating events, a sweep is performed of medical personal connected with this and other cases, and Andrei is accused of being a "murderer in white coat," part of an alleged conspiracy to systematically kill off high-level government officials. Anna and Andrei are sent into a tailspin of worry and prepare for the worst, until one night he is seized from their home - the thing she lived in fear of happening to her father.
"She and Andrei are prepared. Everything seems not only unreal but also absolutely familiar, as if she's been waiting for this all her life. All the stories she's heard, all the whispered, shattered phrases, are suddenly alive in the front of her mind, like a set of instructions."
By this time, Anna is most of the way through a pregnancy, a conception that happened after an evening at the hospital ball that was the highest point of their life. Now her child will be born without a father, and once again she'll be left alone with a child.
Dunmore's narrative is compelling, her language evocative of the stark, barren days of the siege, even though life has moved forward. Fear and doubt are as palpable as hope and striving. From the standpoint of current history; the end of both world war and cold war, The Betrayal's ending is as surprising as the events within, and welcome. The result is characters and a story that stay with you long after you close the last page, as well as emotional truths about life, love, family and community, and the pursuit of freedom and happiness that are as important now as they were then, though much more taken for granted.
Carla Maria Lucchetta is a Toronto writer and broadcaster.