Survival in a Kafkaesque World

This is my review of The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore.

A gripping tension builds up in the early chapters as a panicstricken doctor manages to foist onto Andrei the dubious honour of trying to heal the perhaps terminally ill son of Volkov, a high-ranking Soviet official in the dreaded Ministry of State Security.

The book is convincing in capturing what it must have felt like to live through the final months of Stalin's Reign of Terror. Ordinary, decent people learned to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, anything to avoid attracting notice, even to the extent of suffering the harassment of malicious neighbours in overcrowded apartment blocks.

Helen Dunmore is skilful at portraying the minute details of people's relationships, their shifting thoughts and emotions. There is even subtle evidence of sympathy between Andrei and Volkov. She makes us care about Anna, the nursery school teacher whose life has been so restricted through the crime of having a free-thinking writer for a father, her artistic teen-age brother Kolya who is like a son to her, and her principled, sensitive husband Andrei. The fear of the "knock on the door at night", the helpless anger over the mindless destruction of one's possessions by the police, the shock of realisation that so-called friends and colleagues are too frightened to help, all come across vividly.

What could be a grim story is lightened by Dunmore's poetical prose – the descriptions of the landscape, and the wry observations on human nature, as some people spout slogans to wangle their way to the top. I always felt optimistic for Anna and Andrei because they are survivors of the terrible siege of Leningrad – I realised too late that "The Betrayal" is a sequel to "The Siege", but it can stand on its own.

The final chapters do not build up to a strong climax, and the narrative loses momentum, becoming almost dull in places, with some potentially dramatic events reported rather than acted out. This approach may well be "true to life". It may also reflect the author's liking for short stories which do not require the development and maintenance of a plot over many pages.

I admire the quality of the writing (although sometimes the children's author voice slips through a bit patronisingly), the plot idea is excellent. It is only the handling of the denouement that could have been defter.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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