City of Thieves by David Benioff

6327123Fiction — print. Penguin Books, 2009. 319 pgs. Purchased.

When a Nazi pilot parachutes onto a street in Leningrad, Russia near Lev Beniov’s home, he and his friends climb down from the roof and hurry over to attack the pilot. When the threesome discover the pilot is already dead, they steal liquor and small amounts of food off the body. Looting is strictly forbidden by the Soviet regime, though, and Lev is picked up by the police and thrown into jail.

Convinced he is going to be executed, Lev is surprised by the behavior of a Soviet military deserter named Kolya, who seems so sure that nothing will happen to them and unusually confident that the military will admit they made a mistake in arresting him. Lev is further surprised when the two of them are pulled from the jail cell and presented to a high ranking NKVD official, who promises to let them go is they secure a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.

Under siege by the Nazis in 1942, there is no food in Leningrad (formerly and once again known as Saint Petersburg); people have taken to eating the paste from book bindings and calling it candy. But Kolya is confident the two of them will locate the eggs, guiding Lev through Leningrad and the outlying countryside to find the price of their freedom.

The beginning of this novel opens with a male writer — possibly Benioff, himself — explaining how his grandfather never talked about his experiences during World War II in the Soviet Union. On a trip to Florida, the male writer is finally able to cajole his grandfather into sharing his story, which included a tale about being sent out to find eggs and killing two Germans along the way. I worried this introduction would mean a stilted tale; one too focused on following exactly what Grandpa said rather than taking fictional liberties and developing a full story.

Such concerns were proven unnecessary by Benioff’s wonderful writing. The narrative moves at the perfect pace; no scene feels too long or too short. Yet the real gem of the novel is the younger version of the Grandfather, and the relationship between Kolya and Lev.

Older and self-described as wiser, Kolya serves as Lev’s mentor, explaining to him about women, about human nature, about fighting in a war and the times one can afford to be afraid. His advice isn’t always perfect or accurate, and I enjoyed seeing Lev grow up and realize when to listen to Kolya and when to ignore or refute what he says as the two continue on their quest.

The characterization, the pacing, the relationship between characters all make for a charming novel (despite the subject matter). It has been quite some time since I picked up a book and read it straight through, but this combination made it impossible for me to put Benioff’s novel down. The thirty or forty minutes I planned to read before nodding off quickly stretched out into an entire evening following Lev and Kolya on their harrowing adventure through Leningrad and Soviet Russia.

This is my ninth book for #20BooksofSummer. I purchased my copy at the library’s used book sale in April 2015


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