In her sequel to The Siege (2002, etc.), Dunmore returns to Leningrad in 1952, compressing the anxiety and terror of the postwar Stalinist years into the intimate details of one family’s crisis.
A sense of doom takes over from the first page when pediatrician Andrei is approached by a nervously sweating colleague who twists his arm to consult on a case they both know will bring trouble. Volkov, the head of State Security, has brought in his 10-year-old son Gorya with a badly swollen leg. X-rays show a cancerous tumor; Gorya’s leg must be amputated. Andrei, whose specialty is arthritis, has no expertise in oncology, but Volkov demands he take charge of the case because Gorya likes him. Anti-Semitic Volkov even agrees to Andrei’s recommendation of a Jewish surgeon. Although the amputation is successful and Gorya appears on the road to recovery, the surgeon immediately transfers out of Leningrad and recommends Andrei do the same to lower his visibility. Instead, he and his wife Anna, who fell in love during the Nazi’s siege on the city, take a fatalistic approach, barely altering their routine. Since the wartime death of Anna’s father, they have concentrated on raising Anna’s little brother Kolya, now 16, like their own son in the relatively comfortable apartment they inherited from Anna’s father, a politically unpublishable writer. In this relentlessly dark novel, Anna’s petty battle with a neighbor who complains about Kolya’s piano playing passes for comic relief. When one of the characters is arrested, history goes on to create an ironic deus ex machina par none—the arrest occurs in 1952; Stalin dies in 1953 and the iron glove relaxes.
Fictional drama blends seamlessly, if painfully, with factual history in this historical fiction of the highest order.