The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore was first published in 2010 and it was long listed for the Booker prize. Howard Jacobson won the prize that year with The Finkler, I haven’t read anything by him, but I’m wondering if I would have enjoyed that one as much as The Betrayal.
It’s the first book by Helen Dunmore that I’ve read, it was Judith, Reader in the Wilderness who pointed me in the direction of The Betrayal – and what a great read it was.
Given the subject matter this was never going to be an easy or comfy read. The setting is mainly Leningrad and it’s 1952, Stalin is of course in power. Andrei is a young hospital doctor, married to Anna who is a nursery school teacher. They’ve been together for years, all through the siege of Leningrad and they feel lucky to have a two room apartment that they share with Anna’s much younger brother. Like everyone else they are constantly walking on egg-shells, knowing that there are spies everywhere, just waiting to denounce them to the communist authorities.
Andrei is a specialist in childhood arthritis, but when one of his colleagues asks him to look at a child’s swollen leg joint he realises that it is something far worse, he suspects cancer and he knows that his colleague has just handed him a poisoned chalice, because the child is Gorya the ten year old only son of Volkov a man very high up in the secret police. Volkov is a name that strikes fear into everyone.
Sadly it’s too late for Gorya, the cancer has spread and there’s no hope for him. Volkov has to hit out at someone and the doctors are the obvious targets for his rage, and so begins a nightmare for Andrei and Anna.
The Betrayal portrays what seems to me to be a realistic view of life in the Soviet Union, just before the death of Stalin. Hundreds of thousands of people had been sentenced to death or sent to labour camps for life under Stalin’s rule. He had begun with the artists and writers, then moved on to the engineers, after that it was the doctors who were targeted and accused of being butchers and Volkov says ‘We are uncovering an international conspiracy of Zionists working as tools of the Americans, who directed these criminal saboteurs.’ That’s a dictatorship for you and they’re all run on much the same principles!
Thankfully in reality the death (murder?) of Stalin meant that the doctors and many others who had been imprisoned under Stalin’s regime were eventually set free.
This isn’t the sort of book that you an say is an enjoyable read but it’s a real page turner.