“We walked alongside the frozen Fontanka Canal, the ice littered with abandoned corpses, some covered with shrouds weighted down with stones, others stripped for their warm clothes, their white faces staring up at the darkening sky. The wind was beginning to wake for the night and I watched a dead woman’s long blond hair blow across her face. She had taken pride in that hair once, washed it twice a week, brushed it out for twenty minutes before going to bed. Now it was trying to protect her, to shield her decay from the eyes of strangers.” (page 56)
City of Thieves by David Benioff is one of those books that I avoided for no good reason. The subject matter seemed boring to me, another war novel, another novel about Russia that I just had no interest in reading. Every once in a while, though, a book just keeps showing up in my life and I just have to pick it up. This was the case with City of Thieves. It was featured at B&N, I stumbled upon it in the stacks and finally it was there at the check-out lane at the library. Then it moved to the top of my TBR pile by chance – it was the only book I had in my car one day. So I started reading it and I’m so glad I did.
The one word that comes to mind after reading this book is absurd. The book is about Lev and Kolya, two young Russian men who are doing their part to defend St. Petersburg/Leningrad/Piter from the Germans. They both end up in prison one night, after Lev loots a dead German’s body and Kolya supposedly deserts the army. Certain they are facing death, they strike up an unlikely friendship that continues to grow after they are sent on a ridiculous mission by the commander: find a dozen eggs. If they can find a dozen eggs for the commander’s daughter’s wedding cake, they will be set free. Never mind that no one has seen an egg in Piter for six months.
So they go looking for eggs. This book balances the tragedy and absurdity of war in an unlikely way. It is humorous but it never forgets its setting; it is grand and it is base. There are moments of laugh out loud debauchery and tear-inducing trauma. I cannot tell you how well this book is researched, in terms of how accurate a representation it is of Leningrad during the German blockade, but it sure feels well-done. It feels impeccably researched, but never loses the narrative in the history. It combines a character-driven tale, a historical back-drop, mythic allusions and manages to be refreshing and original. As for the ending, well, I might have seen it coming from a mile away, but it certainly felt satisfying and I might have cried just a little.
The boy sold what people called library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars you could wrap in paper. The stuff tasted like wax, butt here was protein in the glue, protein kept you alive, and the city’s books were disappearing like the pigeons. (52)
For a few seconds he helped me forget the fear, but it never left for long. I could not remember when I was not afraid, but that night it came on stronger than ever before. So many possibilities, but that night it came on stronger than ever before. So many possibilities terrified me. There was the possibility of shame, of cowering again on the fringe of the action while Kolya fought the Germans – except this time, I knew he would die. There was the possibility of pain, suffering through the kind of torture Zoya suffered through, the saw teeth biting through my skin, muscles and bone. There was the excellent possibility of death. I never understood people who said their greatest fear was public speaking, or spiders, or any of the other minor terrors. How could you fear anything more than death? Everything else offered moments of escape: a paralyzed man could still read Dickens; a man in the grips of dementia might have flashes of the most absurd beauty. (pg 136)
This book was just what I needed when I needed it, highly recommended.
So go read this: now| tomorrow |next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile
Did you read and review City of Thieves? Tell me in the comments and I’ll link to your review!