A small knot of people fight to survive the Nazi siege of Leningrad in a book that feels more like history than it does like a novel.
In the summer of 1941, twenty-two-year-old Anna Levin is staying with her father, Mikhail, at his small dacha outside Leningrad, where Anna keeps watch over her five-year-old brother Kolya. Mikhail is a writer whose lack of political acuity has made him unpublishable; and this failure, along with the recent loss of his wife, has made him into a premature invalid. Anna doesn’t have much drive, either. She watches after the family, does some drawing, takes care of the garden, and, like everyone else, makes sure to voice politically correct enthusiasms for Comrade Stalin so that the men in black vans won’t show up in the middle of the night to take them away. Then, she hears the unbelievable news of a German assault on Russia, and the story begins its lockstep march from the tensions of peacetime to the horrors of war. Despite everyone’s protestations that the Fascists will never get anywhere near Leningrad, the nearer they come. Anna and her family move into the city so as not to be cut off. They are joined in their small apartment by Marina, an actress who fell from political grace years ago and was also a mistress of Mikhail’s; and Andrei, a young doctor who quickly falls for Anna. As the temperature drops, so does hope. The brutal winter makes an already-unbearable situation worse, and soon people are making soup out of bread and water and praying for an end to winter.
Dunmore (With Your Crooked Heart, 2000, etc.) has a gift for telling her tale in the rhythm of war and suffering, but less of one for releasing the springs of a novel. Still, mixing an easy lyricism with gruesome honesty, she shows us what life is like for civilians in war—praying for help, saving the last crust of bread.