The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

Betrayal by Helen DunmoreAndrei is a young Russian rheumatologist living in Leningrad after the German siege of the city during WWII. He is popular and likeable having saved many lives during the siege and he still works in a Leningrad hospital. One day he is unexpectedly approached by a friend called Russov and persuaded to diagnose a young child called Gorya – Gorya happens to be the son of Volkov, a very powerful and high ranking police officer within the Stalinist regime.

Andrei is left with a terrible dilemma. If he refuses to help Gorya, Volkov could have him arrested and detained without reason, but if he chooses to help him and the child who is seriously ill with cancerous tumours dies, which in all likelihood he will do, then Andrei may also be blamed for not doing more to save him. The only hope is that amputating Gorya’s cancer affected leg will save him or that Andrei flees Leningrad to start a new life with his family and hope to avoid the authorities.

He chooses to stay and quickly befriends the boy. A top class female doctor and friend of Andrei called Brodskaya, who happens to be Jewish, amputates the leg to the best of her ability. But it is all in vain as the cancer was advanced and quickly spreads to Gorya’s lungs after which there is no hope of saving him.

Failure to save the boy has devastating effects on Andrei and his loving wife Anna & her younger brother Kolya whom Andrei treats as a son.

Anna already has a hard life. She is constantly under pressure as a nursery assistant, she struggles to cope with her neighbours who are less than friendly, and with the demands created by an impoverished lifestyle. Yet she maintains her pride and she is powerfully driven to preserve her dissident father’s memory by saving his written works for posterity come what may.

When things go wrong and Gorya’s fate is sealed, Andrei is arrested and taken away. Now Anna is faced with her own moral dilemma – should she stay to support her husband which would put her own life in serious danger, or should she run away to protect herself, her brother Kolya and her unborn child – and this is in fact what Andrei wanted her to do. In the meantime Andrei suffers horrific and degrading abuse at the hands of the police and detention system.

This is a powerful book revealing the paranoid and tyrannical nature of the Stalinist regime and its stranglehold on power. Any threat to the state either real or imaginary was dealt with severely. Many people including Brodskaya lost their lives because of the paranoid belief that there was a Jewish conspiracy to undermine the state including well respected Doctors within its ranks. Andrei is wrongfully arrested, detained and imprisoned without trial and it looks hopeless for him.

However this story is not all harsh and bleak.

Volkov shoots himself, presumably because he can no longer live with the knowledge that he has failed his son and there is nothing more he can do for him.

Anna succeeds in evading the authorities and starts a new life for herself giving birth to hers and Andrei’s child. Not long after this she hears news of Stalin’s death.

Andrei survives imprisonment and is released after Stalin’s death but he has a long and difficult journey to make from Siberia to be reunited with his family – a triumph of the human spirit against all the odds.

There are many aspects of this book that make it a great read. Parallels are drawn between life and death (Kolya’s bright future contrasting with Gorya’s fate), humanity and tyranny, responsibility and blame. There is love & sacrifice, anger & vengefulness. Beautiful descriptions are drawn of the natural world which are incompatible with the vivid and harrowing accounts of the brutality meted out in the Lubyanka detention centre.

‘The Betrayal’ was generally well received by our reading group and I thought it to be a compelling read. The characters are believable and well sketched, it is true to life,while being fast paced and thought provoking with ethical and moral issues to consider.

What would you do if you were Andrei or Anna and you knew that you had a duty to perform, but by accepting that duty you would be putting your own life in serious danger – would you stay or would you run?

Andy Dalby – Shipley reading group

20 December 2011


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