Monday, March 02, 2009

Read: City of Thieves by David Benioff

David Benioff's second book opens with a screenwriter who is tasked to write an autobiographical essay and decides instead to write about his grandparents' experience during the siege of Leningrad. They now live in Florida, on the Gulf Coast, in a house built "by an architect who would have become famous if he hadn't drowned the same year". But they are quite unlike the other retirees that flock the state: "the front door is usually unlocked and there is no alarm system. They don't wear their seat belts in the car; they don't wear suntan lotion in the sun. They have decided nothing can kill them but God himself, and they don't believe in him."

It's a great and tightly written set-up, essentially and intentionally informing the reader what to expect: "mostly he talked about one week in 1942, the first week of the year, the week he met my grandmother, made his best friend, and killed two Germans". No surprises here.

So the grandfather's story begins. He is 17-year-old Lev living in Leningrad. His family has left for safer ground but, too young for the army, he stays to fight fires, he stays for his city. Thrown in prison for looting a German paratrooper's corpse, he meets Kolya, who sounds like he belongs in an Abercrombie catalogue ("high Cossack cheekbones, the amused twist of the lips, the hay-blond hair, the eyes blue enough to please any Aryan bride"). Kolya, a private in the Red Army, is accused of being a deserter. Their lives are spared but an impossible task is forced upon them by a hardened colonel - find a dozen eggs in six days in order for his wife to make their daughter's wedding cake.

Their bizarre hunt takes them through a Leningrad that is skin and bones, where rumours of eggs are mere rumours, but tales of cannibalism are not. Young Lev starts out not being too fond of his fellow egg hunter. He doesn't like Kolya's seeming ease and experience with women, and the way Kolya fancies himself an expert on Russian literature. There are many humorous conversations that evolve around those topics (which sound like they were written with a movie-to-be in mind).

Can there be two more different characters thrown together? One small and dark, the other tall and blond. It is inevitable that despite their earlier grievances, they form a bond as they chase the impossible through the city of ghosts, and out into German-occupied territory, where they fall in with some peasant women kept by Nazi officers, then with a band of hard-edged partisans, among whom is a sharp-shooter, a small, tough young woman named Vika.

City of Thieves is action-packed and exciting, but it is more than a war novel. It is a story of friendship, bravery, humour and love, which transcend the horrors of war.

(NPR has an excerpt here)

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