The Siege – Helen Dunmore

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Short listed for 2001 Orange Prize and Whitbread Novel of the Year Award

In September 1941 German troops surrounded the city of Leningrad, cutting off all supply routes. This left the 3 millions residents battling for survival – most so hungry that they resorted to making soup from strips of leather. 

The Siege is historical fiction at its best. The writing was so vivid that I almost felt as though I’d been there.

Late in the morning a lilac-coloured dawn will come, with burning frost that glitters on branches, on spills of frozen water, on snow, cupolas and boarded up statues. Nothing has ever been more beautiful than these broad avenues, the snow-coloured Neva, the parks and embankments. Only the people mar its perfection as they crawl out of their homes into the radiance of snow. Perhaps today is the day when they’ll fail to reach the bread queue. So they move on, flies caught between sheets of glass.

The book focused on one family. This personal insight into the crisis made the events come alive. I felt a deep connection to each member of the family and I willed them all to survive.

The Siege also contained a few chapters from the view-point of Pavlov, the nutritionist controlling the amount of food that each person received with their ration card each day. This was a fantastic addition to the plot as it allowed the real facts and figures of the situation to be revealed to the reader. It also allowed us to learn about the numerous ways in which the citizens were advised get nutrition from objects they possessed in their homes – some much more unusual than others.

As you can imagine this could never be described as a happy book, but I can only admire the strength of human spirit – that desire to survive despite the odds being stacked against them.

Highly recommended.

The Siege is the prequel to the 2010 Booker long listed The Betrayal. If you haven’t read The Siege then I highly recommend that you avoid reading any reviews for The Betrayal – I discovered that my 2010 Booker research had led me to reading a few spoilers for The Siege.

The Siege is my first experience of Helen Dunmore’s writing, but I’m a convert! I hope to read The Betrayal next week, but will also be on the look out for all her other books.

Have you read any Helen Dunmore books?

Which one is your favourite?


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  1. Jessica says:

    This one is a great one for my husband to read (hes read alot of non-fiction about the Russian front) so Ill bring this one to his attention.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, If your husband reads a lot of non-fiction then he might already know most of the facts in this book, but if he likes a good story then he’d probably still find a lot to enjoy.

  2. Mome Rath says:

    I’m really intrigued by this book since I find Russian history fascinating. I also like the description of St. Petersburg from that excerpt; it brings back memories, even though I was never there in winter. I think The Siege will be making it onto my list of books to read soon.

    1. Jackie says:

      Mome Rath, It is quite rare to find such vivid descriptions in historical fiction. Some people might find it a bit excessive, but I loved it. The atmosphere was incredible. I hope that you enjoy The Siege :-)

  3. Joanna says:

    Wow, this sounds fantastic. I love books that make history come alive.

    1. Jackie says:

      Joanna, I hope that you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up. :-)

  4. Merenia says:

    Hi Jackie,
    I read Zennor in Darkness a fictional exploration of DH Lawrence’s time in Cornwall, by Helen Dunmore and I think she is ‘Booker’ standard.

    1. Jackie says:

      Merenia, I’m really hoping The Betrayal is as good as The Siege -if it is then it will breeze onto the short list. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

  5. Joanna says:

    The writing in this book is so vivid that I felt cold while reading it – in the height of a French summer.

    1. Jackie says:

      Joanna, I know what you mean. She has an amazing talent. The book made me feel so hungry and then I felt guilty for eating while reading about all those people starving. :-(

  6. BookElfLeeds says:

    Helen Dunmore is an amazing writer, with a huge scope for subject and style, every one of her books that I’ve read has been fantastic and I cannot recommend her enough. Mourning Ruby has to be mt favourite in that its so sad, but Your Blue Eyed Boy is spooky as anything. And if you want to read her stuff then you can’t bet better value that this ten books for a tenner from t’book people

    1. Jackie says:

      BookElfLeeds, What a bargain! Thanks for pointing that out. That saves me having to find them all – I’m going to buy them all right now!!

  7. Marg says:

    I read this a few years ago and found it paled in comparison to my favourite book with this setting. Looking back though, I think that I may have been a bit harsh because of that comparison.

    I had no idea that The Betrayal was a follow up to this book. I think I am going to have to go and find out more about it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Marg, I’d love to know which book was better. Please let me know so that I can ensure I read it :-)

      I hope that you enjoy The Betrayal if you decide to read it.

  8. Sam Ruddock says:

    Like you, I loved The Siege. I actually used it in my masters dissertatation on Soviet Russia at this time as an example of how literature can do more to bring alive a complex situation than non-fiction alone. I remember the scene with the last pot of jam everytime anyone talks about jam and it still makes me salivate a little.

    Thanks for the review. I look forward to reading you thoughts on The Betrayal soon. (Am awaiting my Birthday on Sunday and hopefully a copy of The Betrayal will be waiting for me at the breakfast table!)

    1. Jackie says:

      Sam, The Siege is the perfect example for a dissertation. I can’t imagine any non fiction book having the same impact – it is that personal take on the story that makes it so much more powerful. I found the jam scene very emotional too – tt is amazing how much pleasure they gained from a single spoonful of it.

      Happy Birthday for Sunday – I hope you get your copy of The Betrayal :-)

  9. Verity says:

    Ooh, I loved this – I’m eagerly waiting to get my hands on The betrayal when it’s in the library.

    1. Jackie says:

      Verity, Let’s hope The Betrayal is just as good – I hope your library gets it in stock soon :-)

  10. I read this a couple of years ago and found it utterly compelling. So much so that I found it hard to do the weekly shop – it made me ealise how much we have and how much we take for grnted. Can’t wait to read The Betrayal – you just reminded me how good The Siege was.

    1. Jackie says:

      Deborah, I hope that you enjoy The Betrayal. As well as the food shortages – I can’t imagine 10C being warm :-( I can’t imagine being that cold.

  11. I was debating reading this one before The Betrayal (mostly because of time), but your review convinced me. I’m really looking forward to it now. Thanks!

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I’m sure that The Betrayal can be understood without reading The Siege, but I think that you’d never be able to enjoy The Siege as much if it wasn’t read first.

      I hope that you enjoy both books. :-)

  12. LizF says:

    Thanks for the warning about the spoilers in info about The Betrayal.
    I have had a copy of The Siege for years but have not got round to reading it, probably not helped by it being on a difficult to access high shelf in my bookroom/office.
    Your review means that I will go home and find a stepladder so I can put it at the top of my TBR mountain.

    1. Jackie says:

      Liz, I hope you don’t have too much trouble with the step ladder :-) Enjoy The Siege!

  13. Amy says:

    I think the addition of the nutritionist is a brilliant idea, for the reasons you mention. Sounds like a book worth reading.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, It was very interesting to hear from the nutritionist. Without his appearance I might have assumed that those in control didn’t care about the public and left them to die, but they were actually doing the best they could with very limited resources. Fascinating stuff.

  14. I’ve never read any Dunmore, but this is the one I’d start with. I love novels set in Russia for starters, and I know my Mum enjoyed the Siege lots.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, Your Mum clearly has good taste :-)

  15. Tricia says:

    Great review! I’m looking forward to this one – it should be in my library by this weekend (fingers crossed). I love vivid historical novels.

    1. Jackie says:

      Tricia, I look forward to your review :-)

  16. Stujallen says:

    sounds very good Jackie ,I d recomend Elise Blackwell’s hunger it is also set in Stalingrad ,alaways a rich vein for fiction beinoff city of theives also set there ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, Books set in Russia do seem to have fantastic plots. I haven’t read either of the books that you mention, but I’ve added them to my wishlist now. Thanks for the recommendations.

  17. David Nolan says:

    Hello Jackie, it’s been a while since I commented but I’m still following your blog.

    I agree with you, and with the many others here who are full of praise for The Siege. I too found it a very impressive piece of historical fiction. More recently I read a very different Dunmore book called With Your Crooked Heart, and found it very unappealling. It is fortunate I read The Siege first, because without having that experience behind me, Crooked Heart would probably have put me off this author for good. The latter is set in modern Britain and features some rather unlikeable characters in failing relationships. Even though I read it earlier this year, that is about all I can remember of it.

    Dunmore is clearly a versatile writer who ranges widely in her topics, settings and character types. If that means an individual reader reacts very differently to some of her titles, then that is probably no bad thing. Anyone who likes the sound of both these books may be interested to know that The Book People are selling a set of ten of her paperbacks for £9.99 (excluding postage).

    1. Jackie says:

      David, Thanks for the warning about the differences in Dunmores books. It seems that a lot of talented writers like to stretch themselves and write very different things. I don’t think I’ll ever be put of trying her books now, but I will lower my expectations when trying some of her other books.

      Thanks for the Book People info – BookElfLeeds had already pointed that out to me. Now I’m just trying to work out what else I should buy to get free delivery :-)

      1. David Nolan says:

        Apologies to BookElf for failing to notice that.

        You could perhaps get something for your offspring, since TBP have a lot of children’s books? Failing that, I can certainly recommend the Robert Goddard three book set. He writes plot-rich fiction with plenty of twists and turns.

        1. Jackie says:

          David, I’m tempted by the classic crime collection and will probably get the Winnie the Witch set for my boys, but I still need to spend some more – I do love book shopping :-)

          I haven’t read any Goddard, but my Dad enjoys his books. I’ll have to borrow one of his sometime :-)

  18. Sandy says:

    I’m not a big historical fiction reader, but I think this one would be perfect for me. I love the time period, and I love the perspective that it gives. I think you are personally responsible for about half my TBR list girl.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I think your love of WWII fiction would make you a big fan of this one.

      Sorry for increasing your TBR – you’ve added a lot to mine too :-)

  19. diane says:

    The Siege sounds really good. Dunmore was an author I had wanted to try!

    1. Jackie says:

      diane, For some reason Dunmore had never really been on my wishlist before. I’m so pleased that this book has changed all that.

  20. Jenners says:

    It boggles my mind what people do to survive.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, But also heartwarming to know what they wont do – human nature is a wonderful thing :-)

  21. This sounds really good. I don’t think that there’s enough literature and movies about the Russians during World War II. I think that’s probably because so many Russians died that they don’t really like to talk about it.

    1. Jackie says:

      J.T. There does seem to be an increasing amount of literarture about the Russians around at the moment. Not much, but it is slowly filtering through.

  22. Teddy says:

    I never heard of this book or author before so thanks for reviewing it. Sounds like a must read for me! I love books set in WWII and also books set in Russia during this time.

    1. Jackie says:

      Teddy, Sounds like a perfect match for you. Enjoy :-)

  23. Robert Burns says:

    Dear Jackie,

    Please stop!! I can no longer afford to support my reading habit since I discovered your blog. Ninety percent of the books you have reviewed on your site have gone directly onto my to-be-bought list. Here today is yet another one. I must put my foot down somewhere. I simply cannot afford all these books. If you do not cease with these ingenious reviews and begin reviewing at least a few books that are complete rubbish, I am going to have to consider sending you a bill.

    Yours only half jokingly,


    1. Jackie says:

      Robert, LOL! It is great to hear it. I’m afraid that I have gone through a run of amazing books recently. Luckily for you I have a few average/terrible books waiting to be reviewed so your bank balance should be safe for at least a week ;-)

  24. Karen says:

    I just finished this one too and like you just loved it. Such simple but brilliant writing in many ways – I felt hungry while I was reading this book my empathy for the characters was so strong. I have just collected The Betrayal from the library tonight and am eager to start it but I”m also sad that I will have nothing good to read after I finish it!!

    1. Jackie says:

      Karen, It is great to hear that you enjoyed it too :-) I know what you mean about great book syndrome – luckily I’ve had a run of fantastic books recently, but I do wonder what will be good once I’ve finished The Betrayal. Hopefully one of the other Bookers will be a surprise gem.

  25. Lucy says:

    Thanks for this review. It really sounds like the type of book I would love


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