Fig Tree £18.99

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.

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss