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The Betrayal, By Helen Dunmore

Domestic routine must be maintained – somehow –in this magnificent novel of life under Stalin

It is often attributed to Stalin, the quote that "The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic." Though it was probably said about him, rather than by him, it would have formed a suitable epigraph to Helen Dunmore's magnificent new novel, whose great success is once again to expose the reality of the millions of individual tragedies that happened under Stalinist rule.

Dunmore's last novel to be set in this era, The Siege, was shortlisted for 2001's Orange and Whitbread prizes, for its devastating portrayal of life for the ordinary citizens of Leningrad in 1941. It was praised by this paper's reviewer as "an astonishingly gripping and haunting book that shows how and why novels should be written". So when Antony Beevor, the author of Stalingrad and an acknowledged expert on the period, writes that this new novel outshines that one, it is worth paying attention.

The Betrayal picks up the lives of Anna, her husband Andrei, and Anna's younger brother Kolya more or less where they left off at the end of The Siege. And where that novel's skill was to make tangible the excoriating cold and hunger of wartime Stalingrad, this one just as beautifully constructs a sense of paranoia that is almost palpable. "No one makes a better enemy than a man who has had to beg for your help," Andrei realises in the first few pages, when a colleague at the hospital where he works pleads with him to take over the care of a young patient. Unfortunately for the idealistic doctor Andrei, the patient is the son of a senior secret police officer, Volkov, and the prognosis is not good.

Dunmore's novels often describe family relationships that are somehow skewed, and this one has filial traumas in all their forms – up to and including the brutal influence of Papa Stalin himself. Thirty-three-year-old Anna is still mothering her beloved Kolya (whose birth caused the death of their mother and all of Anna's dreams for her own life, and who has now grown into a typically ungrateful 16-year-old). She and Andrei cling to the hope of conceiving a child of their own, but no longer dare speak of it. Andrei forges a bond with the sick child, Gorya, that makes his position increasingly perilous with Volkov, in all his explosive, patriarchal authority. "Don't take risks," is the mantra. "Don't stand out." Unfortunately, nobody can be invisible.

As Andrei's life rapidly spins into the stuff of nightmare, small details best convey the surreal spiral of his and Anna's agony. It is the epic heroism of those who wait: "It seemed as if the official had calculated exactly the amount of despair that each person in the queue needed to feel, each day." It is the power of writing, and the necessity of keeping it secret: "Outside, he would never have believed that three initials scratched into a piece of soap could be so precious," considers a prisoner, as, in a dacha far away, Anna and Kolya bury their dead father's samizdat poetry in a compost heap. It is, primarily, the stifling, maddening tedium of a domestic life that must, somehow, go on.

It is often said that Dunmore's writing (she is also a poet) is sensuous, physical and almost synaesthetic. Here, it is all that, but also sparse and elegant when needs be. In fact, the most dramatic moments in the novel read almost like a bleak screenplay: "He seems to taste the metal of the gun and a mask of anguish and disgust comes over his face, as if he has tasted poison. For a few seconds, he remains still, apart from the shaking of his hands..."

Historians have written capably about the horror of Stalin's 1952 "Doctors' Plot", as they have written about the Siege of Leningrad which preceded it. But it takes the skill of a very superior novelist to make the unimaginable real. Dunmore is just such a novelist: brave, tender and with a unique gift for immersing the reader in the taste, smell and fear of a story. Writing like hers reminds us that human life is always more than just a statistic.

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