REVIEW: City of Thieves by David Benioff
During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.
By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.
Dear David Benioff,
A good friend of mine recommended this book to me years ago, but only recently I decided that I was in the mood to read it.
WARNINGS TO READERS.
As the blurb tells you this book is set during the Siege of Leningrad, one of the most horrific events (should I say battles? No, it was not really a battle) of the Second World War in the Soviet Union.
I am linking to the Wiki page, because I am not going to assume that the readers who did not grow up in the Soviet Union as I did are well familiar with it (if you are familiar with it – great), but please take a look if you are not and assume that this book while a work of fiction touches upon the horrors of war and people dying from hunger. It is not a non-stop string of horrors, but the narrative absolutely touches on many horrible things happening. It does not dwell on it, but it shows it – including cutting the throat of the dog and brief description of the sexual torture/ murder of the fourteen year old girl. HEED THE WARNING!
Of course this book has many wonderful things going in it as well – even in such terrible circumstances people are trying to survive and trying to live and two young guys are being set on the weird and desperate quest to find the eggs in the city where most people are starving.
Lev narrates the story and I believe that the story is loosely based upon the writer’s grandfather experiences during the Siege of Leningrad. I say I believe because the foreword to the story pretty much states that, however I could not be hundred percent sure that the foreword was not fictional, so I want to be extra cautious.
Lev refuses to leave Leningrad with his mother and sister and at seventeen he is doing his best to protect the building where he and his friends live. Unfortunately everything goes horribly wrong when a dead German fighter falls into their lap and Lev decides to take a closer look at him and gets himself arrested for “looting”. There he meets Kolya who was already arrested for “desertion” and they both realize that their lives could be finished very soon.
“We shoot a dozen people every day for forging ration cards. You know what they tell us, before we put bullets in their brains? They were hungry. Of course they were hungry! Everyone is hungry. That won’t stop us from shooting thieves.” “I wasn’t stealing from Russians—” “You stole state property. Did you take anything from the body?”
Luckily Colonel gives them a chance to keep living in this world and sends them on the wild goose chase to find a dozen of eggs for his daughter’s wedding and of course they go, because what other choices do they have?
From there we have an adventure amongst the horrors of war, and coming of age story indeed. I thought that Lev as POV character did the most growing up during the course of the story, but we also learn a lot about Kolya and I grew to really like both of them, and some remarks struck the nerve on the very personal level with me.
Take this one from Lev, of course him being half Jewish (I say half because his father was Jewish) adds to his multiple anxieties first and foremost because of how Nazis treated Jewish people during the war, but really some of those anxieties never went away decades later.
“It was bad enough to be a Jew in Russia, but to be a Jew with a nose from an anti-Semitic caricature, well, it inspired a good deal of self-loathing. Most of the time I was proud to be Jewish, but I didn’t want to look Jewish. I wanted to look Aryan, blond haired and blue eyed, broad in the chest and strong jawed. I wanted to look like Kolya.”
I was very impressed with how the writer made me smile a few times because the book had such a grim subject matter. There is also a chance for the love story to happen after war, since the beginning was set in the narrative.
Do not expect a happy ending for everyone though. While the book portrays touching friendship, it is most emphatically NOT a Romance.