Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review of City of Thieves by David Benioff (Viking, 2008)

Lev Beniov is the son of a poet who has disappeared in Stalin’s purges. Aged seventeen he chose to stay in the sieged city of Leningrad when his mother and sister were evacuated and spends his nights as a fire warden on the roof of his apartment block.  When a dead German parachutist lands nearby he and his starving friends loot the body.  Lev, however, is caught by the NKVD and taken to the infamous Crosses prison.  He is soon joined in his cell by Kolya, who has been arrested for desertion.  The penalty for looting and desertion is death. However, the following morning they are taken to see a colonel who is determined that his daughter will have a cake at her wedding reception at the end of the week.  His wife needs a dozen eggs and Lev and Kolya’s task is to find and bring them back or be executed.  It seems like an impossible task in a city cut off from supplies and fresh food is a distant memory. Given no option, the two strangers embark on their quest, scouring the city and heading out behind enemy lines.

City of Thieves is a well crafted coming-of-age story set during the Siege of Leningrad.  It’s told from the perspective of the author recounting how his grandparents met before emigrating to America.  The tale has a number of strengths, including an engaging voice and prose, well-paced narrative, a well-developed sense of place, time and context, and a great hook and engaging story line.  What makes the book shine, however, is the characterisation and the emerging relationship between two friends.  Lev is a shy, intelligent but somewhat naïve seventeen year old working as a fire warden.  Kolya is only a couple of years older but is gregarious and much more worldly-wise.  The pair are thrown together when Lev is caught looting the body of a dead German parachutist and Kolya is arrested for desertion, having slipped back into the city for some female company. Facing summary execution, they are given the option of a reprieve if they can locate a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a NKVD colonel’s daughter.  While Lev is uncertain how to proceed, Kolya seems to relish the challenge, confident he can use his charm, wit and wiles to track down the eggs.  As their quest unfolds Kolya takes Lev under his wing and an uneasy friendship starts to develop, deepening as they encounter a number of challenges.  Having quickly exhausted options in the city, they move through Soviet lines into the countryside beyond, tangling with partisans and Germans.  One partisan in particular catches Lev’s eye, Vika, a deadly sniper.  She seemingly has little interest in him or Kolya, though gradually she becomes the third member of the quest.  Benioff nicely blends the action of the adventure with the dynamics of the emerging friendship and observations about Soviet society and the war.  And while the tale could have been dark and depressing, Benioff nicely balances pathos with dark humour and moments of warmth.  Where the story does slip a little is with respect to the emotional register, particularly towards the end, with an absence of grief or anger or a tugging on heart strings.  Nonetheless, City of Thieves is an engaging and entertaining tale of hardship, friendship and adventure.

1 comment:

Icewineanne said...

Not familiar with this author, thanks for the review. This is not mt usual fare but it sound interesting, will add it to my "hunt" list for the new year.