The Siege is a historical novel based on real events. Helen Dunmore makes it very realistic with her peculiar way of non-linear narration, descriptions and close study of human nature. The story happens during the winter of 1941 when Leningrad is under siege from the Germans as well as the Russians. Food runs short and death rates rises sky high.
It is in this background that we see Anna a 23 year old girl with her lost aspiration to become an artist takes charge of her family and manages to help most of its members survive as well as bring positive changes in the lives of other people.
Anna, the protagonist of the novel, lost her mother and gained a brother at once. He is 18 years younger to her and in Evgenia’s words clings on to her as if she is his own mother. He behaves with her the same way Anna behaved with her mother long ago. Even her father considers the young boy as Anna’s own liability and interacts with him only sparsely.
Marina, an ex-girl friend of Mikhail comes to Anna’s life mostly after her mother’s death. She meets Marina only once before her mother’s death. She meets her again when her father sends her to draw Marina’s portrait with a view to bring them closer to each other. Though it is not an instant success, when Marina later comes home, Anna extends her friendship which last a life time and Marina too make amends for the harm she unwittingly brought on Anna’s family.
Maria too is dreamy, romantic, artistic and imaginative but she is different from her father and his girl friend. She is more like her mother. She rises to the occasion and is sensitive to the needs of those around her and her family forms no boundary for her existence. She shares her son’s ration of sugar with her neighbour Zena for her child, even though Zena is not so fond of her.
She remembers her childhood friend Vasya who has gone away to Moscow with his family. She falls in love with Andrei so soon but restricts herself from getting to intimate with him so as not to risk having a baby. She understands how her father is fond of Marina and how her own mother was agonized by that. But she holds no hostile feeling towards Marina and in fact gives her shelter when she most needs it. She is not as Romantic as the rest of the characters and Andrei has to force her to agree with him that she will sit with his dead body like Marina sat with Mikhail’s.
She is a typical Levin with her interest in books and knowledge thought it is fine arts that she really wants to pursue. A very perspicacious Evgenia tells her that she looks so academic. She is well informed about life science and her quick remedies come to the help of people around her. She is a person who can make tea with anything. She is highly skilled in drawing that she is able to catch people not only as they are but also as they want to be. This is because she is seeing more that ‘light’s scrutiny on form’. She sees deep into people. She observes them and tries her best to take care of the fragile Katinka while they go for digging trenches and when Katia dies, she is hurt more than anyone else.
Anna’s resourcefulness too is amazing. She thinks just like Pavlov and measures out rations very carefully and like him she too realizes that there should be some nutrition in leather articles and makes soup out of Kolya old school bag. She is good at farming and seasoning and uses every page in her skill book her mother taught her. She remembers poems like her father and keeps some fire in her mind all through the winter of discontent.
She is optimally optimistic and has no high hopes about Stalinism. She is known to rubbish it at times. Fredya, her neighbour, notices it. Her own boss knows she is efficient but refuses to acknowledge it. Her father, a writer who understands human nature, sees her almost as part of the furniture. He is caught much in himself. Her mother was very affectionate to her but her early death came as a blow to Anna. Incidentally, she has to guard Andrei from Marina like her mother guarded her father.
She is mentally and physically strong and nothing makes her fall sick. When she hears about the oncoming war, she rushes back from the dacha to their home in the city. She gets to work immediately. She had had two bad winters behind her but she stores whatever she can for the coming one as it is not just ‘General Winter but General Hunger’ too as her father has written. Her fight for a few chips of woods, her visit to the market to buy a heater, her meeting Marina at her dacha, her confrontation with the sentry on her way back from the dacha with the sack of potatoes, her passion for and resistance to Andrei, her understanding of her father’s relationship with Marina, her warm generosity to people who suffer with her in spite of their bitterness towards her are all well portrayed vividly by the author to create one of the most memorable characters in English literature.
The only cruel act that she commits is when she destroys the excess produce in her farm so as not to be grabbed by the Germans. Though this act is done in self protection, she suffers later from shortage of food having been denied food to the hungry in the name of war and enmity. She too has all the frailties of a human being like exasperation and frustration, but she rises above all that when duty calls her, whether it is the duty to her nation, to her job or to her family. She always seems to know the right thing to do. Living in the long drawn shadow of her own mother’s death and with people around her falling off like flies, she looks fear at its face and conquers it. She is the symbol of life’s longing for itself.