I believe I’ve heard of this book from some of those newsletters I have subscribed to from publishers. I always read them as sometimes I find something I might like and might want to read in the near future. This one caught my attention and I decided to give it a try.
City of Thieves by David Benioff takes place in World War II Russia during the seige of Leningrad. Here you read the story of Lev, a young boy who gets caught looting a corpse of a German soldier, and of Kolya a Russian army “deserter”. They both get saved from certain death in prison by a powerful Soviet colonel who asks them an impossible task: to find a dozen eggs to make a cake for his daughter’s wedding. Impossible? yes there’s hardly any food in the city. Rations are slim and many people are resorting to very drastic measures to get food. To avoid failure (meaning death if they fail), they go on a journey to look for these eggs.
This book has all the makings of a coming of age historical foreign movie (makes sense, the author is also a screenwriter). I can actually picture the movie in my head and watching it. It’s something I would watch. It’s both funny yet certain parts remind me of the horrors of war still thriving within the city. The story is told in the point of view of Lev who’s young and stays behind while his mother and sister move away from the city. His father, is most likely dead, as he gets arrested and is never seen again. When he meets Kolya, the charming deserter who seems to have a tale for everything and has to say something every waking moment, they make a comical duo. Lev is very surly at first and is annoyed frequently by Kolya, who doesn’t really care what he thinks of him and keeps on going with his little quirks and stories of his various romantic conquests and how he hasn’t gone to the bathroom in a very long time.
I liked this book because of its’ interesting mix of comedy and drama set in a rather serious and sombre setting. Come to think of it, I haven’t even read a book set in World War II where there is comedy in it. In fact I think it’s quite a rarity, yet this kind of rarity, and written and executed well, makes it a rare gem. I have to admit, I liked Kolya from the start. You could tell he was the comic relief of the duo here. He provided the light hearted side of the story and actually had very funny and interesting things to say. It was hard to like Lev. I don’t know what to make of him. Surly, hard to like, easily angered (really all the makings of an angsty teenager) although on the other hand, he knew how to survive on the streets which had made him mature faster while Kolya was more of the child of this twosome. However towards the end of the book where Lev actually does grow up both mentally and physically, I started to rather respect him more as his character developed.
As you read through their journey, you start to see their relationship develop and it becomes even brotherly, as Lev asks Kolya for some tips when it comes to romancing the ladies (and other “sports”). Although Lev sort of begrudgingly and even is embarassed by asking him, Kolya acts like a father figure, an elder brother, and a personal friend to Lev (although sometimes it’s more like an annoying friend you never asked for) which makes the relationship funny, but also at the same time, very personal because of the various events they went through both life threatening and yet comical. Believe me, those comical parts actually had me laughing out loud at times, the dramatic parts are just that and there’s a good balance between the two so you won’t be bored reading this novel.
The things I didn’t like about this book? well for starters, there were some very graphic and gruesome parts that aren’t for the squeamish and some parts even made me squirm uncomfortably. Lev rather annoyed me because he wouldn’t stop thinking as how Vika would look naked (and those moments increased towards the end of the book) it got annoying and stagnant. One other criticism, what happened to Kolya was rather predictable in the end. I figured that out at least before halfway of the novel. (Which is why I said it had all the makings of a great foreign movie).
Despite these faults, I enjoyed reading the book and following these two on their dangerous journey to find eggs. The whole finding eggs bit does make it comical but on the other hand it’s mixed so well with the horrors of war that you’re left being reminded that it’s still there, but that it’s okay to sometimes laugh once in a while even when the situation is very bleak. Besides, you have nothing to lose when you’re starving, and you’re always reminded of death everywhere you turn. Overall a good read if you can get past the graphic parts.
I give it a 7 out of 10.