The siege of Leningrad began in 1941, when the German army cut all land connections into the city, disrupting energy, water, fuel, and food supplies. The result was a famine of epic proportions. Anna, a 23-year-old nursery school assistant, lives with her father Mikhail and much younger brother Kolya in an idyllic pastoral setting. They grow their own food, preserve jams, and tend flowers. As the army approaches, countryside living becomes more dangerous. Anna and her family join others in migrating to the city, where food supplies are believed to be more plentiful. Once there, they find shops have been looted and most goods are available only on the black market.
At first Anna works as part of a defense crew, and her father also volunteers his services for the war effort. But then Mikhail is injured, and Anna assumes a “head of household” role. She also meets Andrei, a young doctor who treated her father, and who is working round-the-clock shifts caring for the sick and injured. Anna and Andrei feel a strong attraction to one another; soon the family offers him shelter, and they are also joined by Marina, a family friend.
With each passing week, the German army tightens its grip on the city. The basics of daily living go from being scarce, to completely unavailable. Food is rationed, and people resort to violence to get hold of additional ration cards. The rations are gradually reduced as officials calculate and recalculate how long supplies will last. Hunger claims one life after another. Winter approaches, and there is no energy for heat, no water for bathing or drinking. And yet Anna works tirelessly to provide for the group, sacrificing portions of her own ration for Kolya and bundling him up in clothes and blankets each day. She scrapes together funds to buy a wood stove, and scavenges for wood while also burning books and furniture. She never gives up, even as her own body weakens. The bond between Anna and Andrei shifts from one of passion, to one of intense commitment to survival.
This book was simply amazing. Helen Dunmore conveyed the physical and mental effects of extreme hunger and cold in such a powerful way:
You wake yourself, snuffling around in the bedclothes. A load of blankets and coats weighs you down, but you’re still cold. Your feet are numb and your breath comes short. The cold settles in your back and makes your spine hurt. You must breathe gently. You must not be restless. Every movement destroys energy which you no longer possess. (p. 191)
And she also brought strong emotion to the story, such as the moment when Anna reflects on how she used to take things for granted:
It’s her father’s breathing, back in the apartment, that keeps her pinned here. All her life he’s been breathing. Why didn’t she count those breaths when she had the chance? Why didn’t she stop still and listen, on just one of those bad-tempered mornings when she was late for work and Kolya was whingeing that he didn’t want his porridge because he always had porridge every single day? She’d never once stopped to bless the fact that her father still breathed. She certainly never stopped to bless the everyday porridge. (p.231)
Reading The Siege, one can’t help getting caught up in the lives of these characters as they face one obstacle after another. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have survived under such extreme conditions, and yet people did. In this powerful story, it was their hope and love for one another that sustained them through some of the most horrific situations imaginable.