City of Thieves by David Benioff
Published in 2009 by Sceptre
My copy: Secondhand copy for September book group
Seventeen-year-old Lev fears for his life when he is arrested for looting the body of a dead German paratrooper, while his charismatic cellmate, Kolya, a handsome young soldier arrested for desertion, seems bizarrely unafraid.
Dawn brings, instead of an execution squad, an impossible challenge. Lev and Kolya can find a dozen eggs for an NKVD colonel to use for his daughter’s wedding cake, and live. Or fail, and die.
In the depths of the coldest winter in history, through a city cut off from all supplies and suffering appalling deprivation, man and boy embark on an absurd hunt. Their search will take them through desolate, lawless Leningrad and the devastated countryside surrounding it, in the captivating journey of two men trying to survive against desperate odds.
I must admit I didn’t really like the sound of this book, and I never would have picked it up if it hadn’t been chosen for my book group. But then I realised it was by the same author who wrote 25th Hour, which I read a few years back and really enjoyed, and so I became more optimistic.
And I found myself sucked into this novel straight away. Lev and Kolya are great characters as they are chalk and cheese yet both really likeable – I especially liked Kolya with his quick wit and inappropriately timed comments, while Lev is much more innocent and naive.
It can’t be easy to mix humour and utter despair but that is just what Benioff does here. A scene can go from being completely heart-breaking one second, to being amusing the next. This made me feel a bit uncomfortable at times but somehow it works. It is also great to see the relationship between Kolya and Lev developing over the course of the book.
The story itself is ridiculous at times but you find yourself rooting for the two heroes as they try and complete their seemingly impossible task.
This novel won’t be for everyone. If you want gritty historical literature, then I would avoid this as it almost descends into farce at times, and the main thread of the novel – the hunt for eggs – is pretty unbelievable. Yet despite this, in amongst the ridiculous there are extremely sad and sometimes brutal moments. All in all I found this to be a pretty unique novel and I really enjoyed it.