A life in writing: Helen Dunmore

The entire back wall of Helen Dunmore's tiny studio-cum-office – eight floors up in a neat block of flats on Bristol's northern slopes – is given over to a glass door, leading on to a strip of balcony. Underneath, the city's streets, parks and houses roll out all the way to the feet of the hills on the skyline. It is, Dunmore says, "a lovely place to write. I know authors who say they can't work unless they're facing a blank wall; they find the external world too distracting. But I like the reminder that it's all out there."

The analogy of the all-seeing novelist is hard to resist: Dunmore perched on high, peering down into the lives playing out below. But such aesthetic distance has no place in her novels. The worlds she creates are urgent and intimate; she talks about her characters as if they were close friends, constantly steering the conversation back to them, like a proud parent, or a lover. "History leaves so much out," said the novelist JG Farrell, when asked why he liked to write books about the past. "It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like." It's in this detail, above all, that Dunmore revels.

In her latest novel, The Betrayal (a sequel to 2001's The Siege), she transports us to another port city, Leningrad, and sinks us deep into the oppressive heart of it. The novel opens in 1952 in the months leading up to Stalin's death; while the atmosphere in the city is fractionally less paranoid than during the purges and executions of the Great Terror, its citizenry remains watchful, overwound. In The Siege, set 10 years earlier during the deadly Leningrad blockade, Dunmore set out a world of shrinking horizons. The frontiers of the characters' lives were pulled back and back: to the city's limits, the walls of an apartment, a single, icy room, a spoonful of honey measured on to a five-year-old's tongue. Fear pulses from the pages, but while cold and hunger slaughtered Leningraders in their thousands, these dangers were at least clearly visible: a decade on, the adversaries are just as terrifying, but harder to pin down. Andrei, a paediatrician, lives with his teacher-wife Anna (Dunmore herself trained as a teacher) and Anna's younger brother, Kolya – the five-year-old of The Siege, now a bumptious teenager. Together, they've constructed a life of more-or-less blameless obscurity, but their peace is shattered when Andrei is called on to treat the son of Volkov, a senior secret police operative. Andrei and Anna find themselves plunged into a tenebrous zone in which logic and truth have no currency, and where their fate depends on the progress of disease in a young boy's body. While the world appears to have opened out from the narrow limits imposed by the blockade, Dunmore reveals that in many ways it remains just as constrained: there is no safety except within the walls of one's own apartment, and even there, the enemy can enter if he chooses.

Dunmore's great skill as a novelist is to swoop down from the historian's eyrie from which everything looks ordered, familiar, sanitised by the passage of time, and plunge into the interior of daily lives. In one of The Betrayal's most effective and affecting scenes, we see Anna after a brutal encounter with the secret police, leaning over her sink in despair, but at the same time noting that "the tap has a crust of dirt around the bottom. You can't see it from above . . . she must clean more thoroughly." "That to me is what people are really like," Dunmore says. "We're never thinking a dreadful or exalted thought without a more mundane one coupled to it. Our essential everyday identity is still humming along."

Her style isn't to everyone's taste. While Stevie Davies called The Siege a masterpiece, and Antony Beevor, writing in the Times, labelled it "a world-class novel", the Observer's reviewer, Michael Williams, wasn't sold, dismissing the domestic arena through which she parses the agonies of the blockade as a "mum's-eye view", "less Tolstoyan than suburban". Dunmore refuses to apologise. "The wars of the 20th century engulfed millions of civilians," she says, briskly. "There's no superior legitimacy in writing about them from a military point of view. Look at Sarajevo; look at the Iraqi children, dead because of inadequate medical supplies: it's on their pulses war is fought. I wanted to write a novel where people would feel an engagement with the subject – not that this was something strange and far off, which could only ever have happened in another country. I feel very passionately that it is not only legitimate to write about these people, but absolutely vital."

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