Sometimes all you want to read is trash. An uncomplicated story with easy-to-follow chapters. A romance novel or some kind of thriller with ridiculous plot twists and hilariously stereotypical characters. Something that reads like a movie: easy to follow, easy to read, with plenty of fun characters.
But what if I told you that you can read something with all of these qualities and some substance to boot? David Benioff’s “City of Thieves” tells a thrilling, edge-of-your seat, un-put-down-able story while simultaneously offering a little insight into the Nazi blockade of Leningrad during World War II.
The book follows teenager Lev Beniov, a scrawny, fatherless Jew too young to join the army who works nights as a volunteer firefighter. Things aren’t going well, per se, but he’s getting along — until he’s caught looting the body of a dead German paratrooper and dragged off to jail.
There he meets Kolya, a blond, handsome, charismatic fellow prisoner. In prison, Lev expects nothing but a bullet in the back of the head, but the secret police have something different in mind for him and Kolya.
Rather than execution, Lev and Kolya are given a chance to regain their ration cards and their lives: The Colonel Gretchko’s daughter is getting married, and they need eggs for the wedding cake. If Lev and Kolya can find a dozen, then they’ll be set free.
Although the chances of finding an egg in Nazi-occupied Leningrad are worse than those of finding a needle in a haystack, Lev and Kolya still set off on their impossible journey, making their way through a city fraught with danger.
While “City of Thieves” is a dark book, set in a dark time and tells the story of two characters with very little hope, it’s also a masterful work of black comedy. The absurdity of the whole situation, searching for eggs when the city is starving, lends a whimsical air to the entire novel so that, rather than depressing, the story becomes fun.
This tone is assisted by the relationship between Lev and Kolya, who have some fun banter throughout the novel. For a rather plot-driven novel, Benioff succeeded admirably with the only real character relationship in the book. But however fun Lev and Kolya can be, Benioff doesn’t forget what he’s writing about: The book is very much a portrait of war. For all the smiling moments, there are gruesome bits, too.
The author clearly did his research, but he presents the information he’s found in the subtlest of fashions, slipping in factoids here and there in a way that enhances the reading experience rather than springing a surprise history lesson upon the reader. The story is presented as if it is that of Benioff’s grandfather, but the author has been rather coy on the subject, and it’s not certain if this is actually the case.
Either way, “City of Thieves” certainly reads as genuine, and it’s certainly strange enough to be real — a tale fit for the screen, but perfectly good in words, too.