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Review: The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

  Our village shop has started selling condoms.  I’m not sure who the target market is supposed to be considering that the population is made up predominantly of married couples. I will remember the quirks of my village with great fondness. People love living here.  If people want a different sized house, quite often they don’t bother looking anywhere else, they just buy another house in the same village.  I’m the lucky recipient of an offer on my house from a downsizing couple in the village.  Hooray!  So all I have to do is wait for them to sell their house.  I’m more than ready to move now and feeling quite impatient for the next step (even though I know that will also be stressful). I’ve had to remind myself that it will probably be winter by the time the move takes place, and by the time I move in, it will be quite a different Lewes from that of the breezy evening streets I’ve been enjoying this week after long, hot days in an office.  Never let anyone tell you that the life of a database manage is anything less than thrilling.  This week, I have been double checking that all the Key Stage 2 results for Years 10 and 11 were correctly entered.  That’s both Test and Teacher Assessment levels in Maths, English and Science for 400 pupils. So thank goodness for iPlayer and Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal. The Betrayal: BBC iPlayer The Betrayal picks up the story of Anna and Andrei ten years after the Siege of Leningrad.  Anna and Andrei first appeared in Dunmore’s The Siege, although the book also stands alone as its own story. It is 1952 and in the wake of Stalin’s Terror, everyone know that the best way to survive is to keep your head down and not draw attention to yourself.  So when Doctor Andrei is asked by a colleague to treat the seriously ill son of a prominent commander in the Secret Police, should he accept the case or decline it? Of course you can work out the answer already – there would be no storyline otherwise Nevertheless, the tension gets to you right from the beginning – the reader is presented with two characters whose past suffering is explained subtly but thoroughly, so you are already rooting for them. The story is based on the Soviet Doctors’ Plot in which a paranoid Stalin planned to set off a mass internment of Soviet Jews by framing a group of Jewish doctors for murdering high profile officials using medical means. I did find myself wishing that the historical facts of this case had been wound more tightly into the storyline of The Betrayal.  I also felt that this wasn’t a clear cut case of betrayal – it would have been interesting to have seen a greater moral dilemma, which would have led to characters making more far reaching decisions.  This could also have led to more development in the characters – I was left with the feeling that this was a beautifully rendered description of a still moment in history, rather than the feeling that I was watching something dynamic unfold.  In comparison with The Undertaking, which was searingly realistic both politically and in terms of the way war changed people, this felt a bit Leningrad-lite.  This is an earnest book, but not a serious one.  It may have been that the abridgement left out something that was in the novel, but to me this was all about what happened, rather than why it happened.

However, seeing the book as a straightforward, almost journalistic, account of what it would be to actually undergo the events in this book, you couldn’t ask for it to be more sympathetically rendered.  It’s a classic four star book for me – perfect on one level, the human sympathy one, but slightly lacking in plot, especially bearing in mind what historical and political riches there were available to draw on. Still, it’s more than worth a listen if you are at a loose end.  Or occupied on a mind numbingly boring task.



  1. Yes, Denise, a good summing up of that story – I read it as a book group read: we all enjoyed it – unusually – we hardly ever agree!
    Loved your opening line – if that doesn’t catch the odd surfing WordPresser, I’d be surprised!

    • I think you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be charmed by Andrei, Anna and Kolya after all they have been through, just trying to lead a normal, decent life.

      It’s funny how often book groups don’t agree. So many times I’ve heard the words, “Half of us loved it and half of us hated it.”

      • I’m not even bothering with this month’s choice – Luminaries doesn’t strike me as a good book for holiday reading!

  2. Maria

    Congratulations on the offer on your house. I’m excited for you. I wish you the very best with your move and the start of a new chapter in your life.

  3. Hooray for the house offer! How did Helen Dunmore’s book end up on the iPlayer – was it a Book at Bedtime for radio 4 or something? And I am impressed by your multi-tasking. I can bake while listening to an audio book, but any other activity I grind to a halt on because I don’t want to miss anything! 🙂

    • Usually this is true for me too that I can’t listen and work.  But this data checking was a seriously mind-free task.  

      It was a Book at Bedtime.  I wish there were more Book at Bedtimes archived – when I last looked, there was the end half of one and the beginning of another.  No good at all!  

      I am trying not to get too excited about the house in case it doesn’t work out.  I am feeling impatient though.


  4. Wonderful news about your offer on your house Denise, congratulations! I hope all goes smoothly, I can tell you are anxious now to get moved in to your new home and your new life. Stressful, yes, but so exciting!
    I need to come back to Lewes again soon 🙂
    As for condoms in the village shop…hmmmmm? Well, we live and learn… 😉

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