What do you call a book that is thoroughly and completely entertaining from start to the final page? I call it fortunate that I accidently discovered the book in the first place. I was browsing in my local independent bookstore when a “Staff Favorite” sticker came up and waved in my face.
The sticker was attached to David Benioff’s novel “City of Thieves,” set in Leningrad during the terrible siege of 1942. Staff member Jeanette Boyer squeezed the following blurb onto a tiny Staff Fave flag:
“You wouldn’t think two young men’s quest for a dozen eggs would prove a dangerous venture, but set it in war-torn Russia in the midst of a Nazi invasion and you have a spell-binding story.”
When you open “City of Thieves” you meet the narrator in Florida, where he has traveled to interview his Russian emigre grandparents.
“I brought a tape recorder with me. I thought maybe we could talk about the war.”
... “You’re forty years old. Now you want to know?”
“I’m thirty-four. I looked at my grandfather and he smiled at me. ‘What’s the matter? You guys were Nazis? You’re hiding your Nazi past?
“‘No, he said, still smiling. ‘We weren’t Nazis.”
Any reasonable reader at this point would expect he’s about to encounter yet another war memoir. But the author undercuts that assumption at the start. Pestered for names, locations, weather conditions on certain days, grandfather counsels the author: “David, he said. ‘You’re a writer. Make it up.”
And so he does, creating a highly believable true-ish story based on highly likely situations. Benioff thus has freedom to tell his compelling tale the way he imagines it. Every page seems real as old shoes stuck in frozen mud. You will get your fill of death and starvation, selfishness and courage, suspense and danger, bizarre scenes and painfully romantic ones. It’s as if Tolstoy had managed to make “War and Peace” both short and very personal.
The story begins, “You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten seven months earlier... In June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter.”
Leningrad has become a forlorn city littered with frozen corpses, abandoned to fate, cut off from the countryside, bombed from the sky and mortared from nearby emplacements.
The survivors deal with it in a variety of surprising accommodations. “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, but there was protein in the glue, protein kept you alive, and the city’s books were disappearing like the pigeons.”
An NKVD colonel pulls from prison the narrator and a charismatic friend named Kolya, sparing their lives in return for an impossible task: Go out into the starving city and somehow locate a dozen fresh eggs. The colonel’s wife wants to bake a wedding cake for her beautiful (and well-fed) daughter.
Impossible eggs or instant execution: Kolya and Lev choose eggs. They have four days. The rest of the book details their adventure.
If I was still on staff I would have made “City of Thieves” my favorite as well. When I came to the final page, I said “Wow” out loud. I don’t do that very often.
Author David Benioff is a screen writer and novelist. His first novel, “The 25th Hour,” was made into a feature film directed by Spike Lee; and he has published “The Nines Roll Over,” a short story collection.
“City of Thieves” by David Benioff. Plume Books paperback $15. ISBN 0452295297.
“When the Nines Roll Over: And Other Stories” by David Benioff. Plume Books paperback $15. ISBN 0452286646.
“The 25th Hour” by David Benioff. Plume Books $15. ISBN 0452282950.