The Betrayal

Written by Helen Dunmore

Lime trees are depicted in Helen Dunmore’s novels The Siege and The Betrayal, both set in 20th-century Leningrad. Both were listed for notable international awards. In the opening scene of her second, we see two doctors talking and smoking in the courtyard of a hospital which is “large enough to be planted with lime trees.” While The Betrayal is a sequel, it’s not mandatory to have read The Siege.

True to its title, this novel has a series of betrayals, and the first one that sets the plot evolves in that courtyard. The perspiring older, Russov, wants to transfer the case of an acutely ill infant to the younger paediatric, Andrei, without the full disclosure that x-rays, taken secretly, had revealed the presence of a tumour, most likely cancerous, in the boy’s leg. Russov does disclose, however, that the kid is the only child of Volkov, the well known, and dreaded, MGB official. Andrei, despite learning of the surreptitious x-rays, warnings from others that if he fails to cure the child, “It’ll be you on the firing line,” and the suggestion from his wife that he call in sick and go away to their dacha, he takes on the case. Andrei strongly believes that he posses the savoir-faire of a physician.

The Betrayal is based on the ‘Doctor’s Plot,’ where upon Stalin’s fanatical belief many doctors, mostly of Jewish origin, were arrested and accused of murdering Party officials. However, its details in the story are sketchy and those interested may wish to peruse recently declassified CIA documents, which Dunmore has referenced. While the novel’s ending is somewhat predictable, it’s Dunmore’s wonderfully poetic writing style that carries the reader to its conclusion. Highly recommended.