Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #42: City of Thieves by David Benioff
This is the second novel my husband has found in the library’s audiobook collection and recommended to me. The first was The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, which now ranks among my favorite novels ever, and now that I’ve read City of Thieves, I have to admit the old man knows me very well. I loved this book. Embarrassingly so.
The novel is actually a story within a story within a story. The narrator opens by telling us that he’s grown up knowing his grandfather killed Germans during World War II, but that’s all he knew of family’s war-time story. Finally, he goes to his aging but still lively grandparents for the full story. His grandfather consents to tell the tale which opens in Leningrad during the war. The city was under assault, and the Russians were starving. The grandfather, Lev, was a teenaged boy living alone in an apartment after his mother and sister fled the war-torn city and his father disappeared before the war at the hands of Soviet secret police. After a bombing raid, Lev stole a knife from a dead German pilot and was arrested for it because the Soviet leaders made it illegal for anyone other than party members to take from the dead Germans. Thrown into prison, Lev meets Kolya, a young Russian soldier who’s been arrested for desertion, though he claims he simply “stepped out” briefly in order to defend his thesis over the novel The Courtyard Hound, which Kolya claims is the greatest Russian novel of all time even though Lev, whose father was a great poet who often entertained great literary figures in his home, has never heard of the book. To their surprise, Kolya and Lev are not taken to be executed, but rather are given a chance for survival by a Russian colonel. If they can find a dozen eggs in the starving city to make a cake for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding, then they will be pardoned of all crimes. They have a strict timeline, however, and the quest for eggs turns out to be dangerous as well as frustrating. Along their journey, they meet up with Kolya’s sometimes lover and her intellectual friends, a group of Russian girls who have been forced into prostitution by the Germans, and a some partisan soldiers that includes a young woman who is a sharpshooter. Throughout the novel, Kolya attempts to educate Lev in literature and life. He used his favorite novel to underscore his lessons to Lev as Lev comes to terms with his father’s death and his own burgeoning adulthood. At times, the book is quite funny, but it’s definitely a dark humor, and Benioff doesn’t shy away from the harsh cruelties of war.
It wasn’t always easy to read, but I could not stop once I got into the book. At the core of the novel is a coming of age story, but it’s also about people learning to trust, love, understand, and accept each other in the worst possible circumstances. The end result was a lovely and moving story (within a story within a story) that has stayed with me long after I read the last page.