The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore

Purchased at the Book Depository

Let’s open this review with an apology to the author: For this reader, The Betrayal had two significant hurdles to overcome. The first was that Helen Dunmore has already introduced these characters in The Siege, a novel that I have not read, centred on Leningrad in 1941/42 — so I am playing a bit of catch up here. More important, I will admit that I have pretty much read as many novels as I want to read about how bad Stalinist Russia was, since they are all so similar. There doesn’t seem to be much more to say other than repeating what others have said better already. Part of me was hoping that its presence on the 2010 Booker longlist meant that Dunmore had found something new to say in this novel.

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?”

“Ten.”

“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.

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14 Responses to “The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore”

  1. Trevor Says:

    This one does have some appeal to me, Kevin. I’m not that well read in books about Stalinist Russia, though I’d like to be. I’ll have to check out The Archivist’s Story and finally take out Solzhenitsyn. Any other suggestions?

    On this book, I’m anxious to see how it fares. Based on your (most likely right) hypothesis about the Booker jury, this and Mitchell might be the strongest contenders for the members who like the conventional. Do you think Dunmore will make her way to the shortlist? If so, a shortlist of this, Mitchell, Galgut, McCarthy, Levy, and Tremain, sounds like a pretty strong shortlist that would appeal to many readers (though I didn’t like Mitchell’s). Might make it a relatively strong year?

    I suspect you’re right with your comment on the MB forum that either Tsiolkas or Donagahue will make it. Not having read either, I kind of hope not. It sounds like the other six above are steady and better.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I will admit that the reason why I liked The Archivist’s Story better is that it was inspired by the attack on Isaac Babel and other writers. I am more a reader than a doctor (I am definitely not that) so the campaign to destroy writers strikes a more responsive chord with me than one attacking doctors. And in saying that in no way am I trying to say that doctors are less important than writers — I just identify more with the trials of one than the other.

    If you have not read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I would also recommend that — indeed, it is very much a “must-read” book. Babel and Bulbakov are certainly worth exploring (Babel in particular for those who like short stories, a form that Russian writers — see Chekhov and Tolstoy — have been very good at).

    As for the Booker shortlist, I think this one and Tremain are very much possibles — I would expect to see one or the other on the list, but not both. I do think one of Donoghue, Tsiolkas or Murray will also be there to represent a more “modern” alternative. But I was far off in predicting the longlist, so I have to admit that the jury’s taste and mine seem to be fairly divergent.

  3. Mary Gilbert Says:

    A very thoughtful and interesting review Kevin. I’ve never read Helen Dunmore but your description of her as essentially a `safe pair of hands’ is what – maybe unfairly – has kept me from picking up any of her novels. Plus the fact that getting Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle from Lichfield library in 1972 and reading it in a day lying on my bed was one of the great reading experiences of my life. I’ll never forget its power, impact and humour. It’s about the purge of scientists and engineers mentioned in your review but follows the main protagonist into captivity and the scientific work he is forced to do with others on behalf of Stalin’s crackpot theories. It also has a wonderful and shocking final paragraph which I can remember 40 years later!

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Thanks for mentioning The First Circle — I knew that someone had written about that purge but was too lazy to research who. Dunmore is definitely not lazy. The Betrayal includes an extensive bibliography and also directs readers to an apparently more extensive one in The Siege. I certainly don’t put down her work but it is of limited interest to my tastes.

  5. Tom C Says:

    I think of Dunmore as a good writer, but not among the best, and your review tends to confirm my impression. Alas I have read too many books on similar topics to want to read this one – thanks for an excellent review which saves me having to get hold of a copy!

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Your comment is a very fair summary of my reaction. I’m not inclined to pick up another Dunmore, but if one crossed my path, I’d probably have a look.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I remember Cancer Ward being my favourite Solzhenitsyn. A Day in the Life was rather spoiled for me by my very left wing school making a musical of it for the school choir one year with compulsory participation.

    One song was about keeping moving so as not to freeze to death in the Siberian cold, the rest mercifully escapes me.

    This would probably have been better had you read its prequel, though I suspect you wouldn’t have been any more excited by it. I actually wonder how much it benefits it to be Bookered in this way. In the normal course those who’d enjoyed the previous book would seek this one out and Dunmore would have people reading her who really wanted to. Now it’s getting a kind of exposure that (like Child 44) may not be entirely to its benefit.

  8. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve read one Dunmore novel, A Spell of Winter, but I didn’t love it enough to want to read any more of her stuff. And yet, when I did a creative writing class back in the early 2000s, the tutors held her up as some kind of demigod. (I had an inkling that one of them was an acquaintance or friend of Dunmore, but that might have just been my cynical gene kicking in.)

    I find it interesting that two books on the Booker longlist are effectively sequels — the Dunmore and the Alan Warner. I guess it’s not unheard of because one of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose trilogy made the cut a few years back, but it does seem unusual to me that books that are part of a series are considered for this prize, because surely to get the full effect of a series you need to read them all…?

  9. Isabel Says:

    I read The Siege as part of my “summer reads”.

    You can read my review.

    The mother died before the war started, and the father survived a bit into the Siege.

    I don’t know much about Stalin, so I might start with this Dunmore novel next summer.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: It hurts just to think about having to participate in that compulsory musical. I presume it was “composed” by one of the masters and this was the only route to actually get it produced. I also don’t think the Booker longlisting is going to help sales much at all. True there are a handful of people (like me) who get added, but I don’t think it is a large number. And I think anybody who does look at it in a bookstore is going to see that it is a follow-up volume and, if anything, head back to The Siege. I should note that the cover is one of the better from this year’s dozen — had I simply come across this on a bookstore shelf I would have picked it up (and then put it back after reading the inside blurb).

    Kimbofo: She is what I would call a “polished” writer, so I could see where some instructors would find her a good example — particularly if they had a class inclined to confusing, run-on paragraphs and sentences. I too wonder about both this and the Dunmore on the list, mainly because the first novels attracted limited attention (I can’t help but wonder if one or two judges are playing a version of “catch up” with these listings, as both books are weak). Pat Barker did win the Booker for The Ghost Road, which was volume three in the Regeneration trilogy (and the weakest of the three for my money), but I think in that case it really was for all three books. And Amitav Ghosh did get nominated for Sea of Poppies a couple years ago, the first in an anticipated trilogy.

    Isabel: There isn’t much “cold” in this one, so I think you might find more suitable “summer reads”. I’d check out the Solzhenitsyn’s for more useful Stalin reading.

  11. Tomcat in the red room. Says:

    Interesting review. I hated this novel; I think it’s among the worst of this year’s Booker nominees; overly simplistic with clumsy metaphors. Also, the fact that Dunmore feels a need to explain that a ‘half century’ prison term is 50 years. Thanks for that, Helen!

    Great blog!

    http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tomcat: Well, it certainly wasn’t one of my favorites and even a month later only the plot outline remains in memory. Thanks for the kind words about the blog.

  13. Sandy Says:

    I haven’t read Betrayal yet, but remember quite clearly reading Siege a few years back. It was one of those rare books that get inside you physically and force you to feel what the characters are experiencing.

    As they suffered during the siege of Leningrad I had to get a blanket to put around me while I read (and some toast to eat!), so strong was Dunmore’s evocation of the cold and the hunger.

    Only one other book has made me feel chilled to the bone while reading it during a hot Australian summer, and that was The left Hand of Darkness.

    I would say she is far more than a safe pair of hands, although that description does resonate about a few other authors I can think of!

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think you will probably find this book much more worthwhile than I did. Some months on, I am even more convinced that, for me, others have done this better. But it should be acknowledged that Dunmore certainly has her fans.

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