Now, to jump to the conclusion: Dunmore easily clears that first barrier — references to the siege of Leningrad are backgrounded and, while I am sure that those who read the previous novel will find more depth in this book than I did, not reading The Siege is not a perceptible problem. Alas, the second barrier remains a major issue — if you want to know more about Stalinist Russia, you will probably find this novel interesting (but there are better examples). If you have read Solzhenitsyn or any of the other dissidents, not to mention Western versions (the not-very-good Child 44 and Travis Holland’s excellent The Archivist’s Story would be recent examples) , this novel reads very much like a literary version of a late arriving train.
(I should also note that the broad context of this novel is based on a real event, the Doctors’ Plot, a Stalin-led, particularly anti-Semitic, purge which followed on earlier atrocious purges against engineers and scientists. Dunmore’s novel is not so much about that broad context — indeed, it is very much a portrait of one individual and the people with whom he worked.)
Andrei is a young doctor at a hospital in Leningrad in 1952 — he has survived the siege, married Anna and appears to have a promising career ahead of him because things “have changed for the better” as the banners proclaim. His moment of truth arrives when he is summoned to a meeting with Russov, a senior physician, in the courtyard of the hospital:
“It’s a new patient. A trick case.”
Andrei nods. “Would you like me to take a look?”
Things quickly get worse:
Russov gives a sudden harsh bark of laughter which transforms his face completely. He looks almost savage. His short hair seems to bristle.
“My ‘initial findings’ are that this patient is the son of — an extremely influential person.”
“Ah. And how old is the boy?”
“And so it is a joint problem, is it? Is that why you came to me?” Why doesn’t Russov get to the point?
“He’s Volkov’s son,” says Russov abruptly.
“Volkov’s?” My God. It’s one of those names you only have to say once, like Yezhov or Beria. Andrei’s heart thuds, and he has to clear his throat before speaking. “The Volkov, you mean?”
With that, you have the plot definition of The Betrayal. In Leningrad in 1952, you do not want to be a tall poppy. Particularly when you are dealing with a cancerous tumor in the son of a senior official in the MGB. Whatever your decision, nothing good will come from this.
And it is no spoiler to say that nothing good does. Andrei needs to make a decision between avoiding risk, as his superior already has, and fulfilling his commitment as a doctor.
To supply another source of tension to this theme, Andrei and Anna have been trying to conceive. They already have a family of sorts in the form of Kolya, Anna’s much younger brother, now in his troublesome adolescence, who is both part in-law and part son (I am sure there is a back story here from the previous novel, but obviously I don’t know it). Their attempts at producing their own offspring have not succeeded (perhaps a result of the lack of nutrition from the siege?) but, no spoiler here, they eventually do conceive.
Going any further into details of the plot will only wreck it for anyone who does want to read the book, but an overview is necessary. The title suggests what the ultimate dilemma will be. Treatment of the MGB bigwig’s son doesn’t succeed, Andrei is held responsible. When you are accused of whatever crime in Stalinist Russia, those around you are also de facto accused. Does your spouse stand up for you or, in the wisdom of those who have been accused before, do you betray him or her in the interests of both yourself and your family?
Dunmore is a thoroughly competent author, straightforward with her narrative and more than capable of maintaining action that serves her plot. This is her eleventh novel (but the first that I have read) and she seems to have a following.
The problem that I have with The Betrayal is that it is entirely predictable when it comes to that plot and there is not much beyond that plot. Stalinist Russia was a truly terrible place, but we know that already. Other novels have already explored not only the central theme (read the original Russians) but some of the more obscure aspects (I found The Archivist’s Story more illuminating than this book).
There is nothing the matter with this novel — indeed, in comparison to some other Booker longlisted books, it maintains pace to the very end. And if you haven’t read other novels about Stalinist Russia, you will probably find it better than I did (but I would urge you to look elsewhere for a better analysis). Helen Dunmore fans are welcome to tell me what I have been missing. This book certainly indicates that she can write — I do suspect that there are works in the back catalogue that are better than this one.