A review by Stephen Amidon
Set in 1941 Leningrad, Helen Dunmore's novel opens with deceptively gentle scenes of Chekhovian melancholy. After the death of her mother, twenty-three-year-old Anna Levin must give up her artistic studies to look after her five-year-old brother and her politically suspect father, whose writing has fallen out of favor with Stalin's cultural police. So she jumps at the chance to sketch the reclusive theatrical grande dame Marina Petrovna, with whom Anna's father might once have been romantically allied. But Anna's worries about art and romance are soon swept away as the Germans besiege her native city. Dunmore's novel transforms abruptly as well, shifting from a quiet idyll into a study of survival under the most extreme hardship. Anna's abundant creativity is put to use ferreting out food and fuel for her helpless family, and her drawing skills are called on to sketch a neighbor's starved baby so that the grieving mother might remember her lost child. Even Anna's love affair with a young doctor is overwhelmed by the rude dictates of survival, which force the couple to forgo lovemaking for a simple sharing of body heat.
Dunmore is at her best when portraying a horrifying scene in lyrical tones, whether it be a dead man's face covered by scintillating frost or a starving family consuming a pot of jam with drunken bliss. She wisely chooses to keep the war just beyond the novel's fringes, having it lay siege to her story without ever invading the action. Only occasionally does she indulge in commonplaces, most notably with the kindhearted whore Evgenia and the steely-eyed bureaucrat in charge of rationing the city's dwindling food, Pavlov. But these shortcomings only momentarily stall a novel that avoids consoling truisms to explore the stories of the forgotten dead.
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